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“Subminimum” Wage Explained

It’s natural to assume that the “minimum” wage is just that: the least any employer in the country can pay someone for their labor. However, the minimum has exceptions. Depending on everything from your age and ability to the industry in which you work, your employer may be able to pay you a lower “subminimum wage.”

The rules surrounding subminimum wages are strict, though. Unless you fit some very specific criteria, your employer cannot pay you below minimum wage. Here’s what you need to know about subminimum wages, who’s subject to them, and how to fight for your right to receive the pay you’re due.

What Is Subminimum Wage?

The minimum wage is established in the US by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This Act covers topics like pay, overtime, and child labor. The FLSA sets the federal minimums that all states and local governments must follow, so no state or municipality can pay less than what it requires.

This Act is also the law that permits subminimum wage. It includes multiple exceptions to the supposed minimum pay that are theoretically intended to encourage the employment of the groups covered by these exceptions. However, workers in these groups often find that employers take advantage of these lower than minimum rates.

Who’s “Eligible” for Subminimum Wage?

The subminimum wage covers a much wider range of workers than you might anticipate. Anyone who falls into the following categories may be legally paid at less than the federal requirements unless local laws prevent it.

  • People Younger than 20: The FLSA includes a “youth minimum wage” for people younger than 20. Essentially, teenagers can be employed at just $4.25 per hour for the first 90 calendar days of their employment. After the first 90 days, the rate must be raised to the standard minimum wage.
  • Vocational Education Students: A student learner, or vocational student, is someone who’s pursuing certification in a field through on-the-job learning. These students may be paid 75% of the standard minimum wage, or $5.44 per hour, to encourage businesses to take them on.
  • Full-Time Students: Any full-time student working in retail, service, agriculture, or higher education can be paid at less than the minimum. According to the FLSA, these students may be paid $6.17 per hour, or 85% of the standard, to encourage employers to hire them despite their schedules.
  • Disabled People: People with physical or mental disabilities may be paid under the minimum wage based on their productivity. The worker’s productivity can be compared to that of an “able” worker and converted into a percentage. The company can then pay them that percentage of the standard pay for the role, regardless of where that places their compensation.
  • Tipped Workers: Service workers such as waiters can be paid a minimum cash pay of $2.13 per hour. The tips these workers receive are supposed to balance out the low pay to at least achieve the minimum, but this is rarely monitored effectively.
  • Incarcerated People: There is no federal minimum wage for workers in prison. An imprisoned person may be required to work for free, depending on their state’s laws.

The Problems of Subminimum Wage

While this low pay has the noble purpose of encouraging the hire of people who may not otherwise be able to get employment, they also pose problems. Subminimum pay exemptions allow unscrupulous employers to mislead their staff into receiving less than what they’re due. Examples include:

  • Tipped workers receiving the federal subminimum wage without receiving enough tips to make it up to the actual minimum
  • “Youth” workers who are “fired” and “hired” on paper every 90 days to keep them at the lower rate
  • Disabled workers who are paid less than the minimum based on unfair productivity comparisons
  • Paying workers who don’t fit any of these categories below the minimum in cash to avoid paying taxes

What to Do If You’re Receiving Illegal Subminimum Wage

If you’re receiving less than your local minimum wage, you may have grounds to sue your employer. You deserve to be paid at least the amount set by federal and local law. If you believe you’re illegally being paid below the minimum wage, you can and should fight for the money you’re owed.

Collect Your Paychecks and Schedules

The first step is to prove that you’re being paid less than the minimum in your locality. Collect your past paychecks and schedules to confirm the number of hours you’ve worked and the amount you’ve been paid. If you don’t have these on record, your employer should. If your employer refuses to give you copies of these documents, get their denial in writing; they may be breaking the law by failing to store those records.

Talk to Your Coworkers

You should also talk to your coworkers to determine how much they’re making. Your right to discuss compensation is specifically protected by laws like the California Equal Pay Act and Executive Order 13665. If your coworkers earn more than you for the same work, you have additional ammunition in any potential lawsuit.

Talk to an Attorney

You have a right to the money your employer has withheld, and the right legal support will help you get it. An experienced pay and hour attorney is invaluable to fighting illegal subminimum pay rates. They understand the system, the law, and the best ways to approach a business that’s been breaking labor laws. A good lawyer will help you take your evidence and build a solid case, making it that much easier to get the money you’re owed.

Get Paid the Money You’re Due

If you’re afraid of losing employment, standing up to your employer can be difficult. However, the current job market is shifting in favor of employees. There’s never been a better time to fight for the money you should have been receiving all along.

If you’re ready to fight for the money you’re owed, get the help you need. The team at the Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman, P.C., will help you make your case and work with the court.

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