The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and many State laws require that employees be paid the wages and overtime pay they are legally entitled to receive in a timely manner. Unfortunately, many employees who have not been paid amounts that they are legally entitled to receive are hesitant to complain because they are concerned about being fired or otherwise retaliated against. Such fear should not discourage an action to recover sums justly earned, as the wage and overtime laws have built-in protections prohibiting such retaliation.
The FLSA specifically provides that it is “unlawful for any person… to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted any or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this Act, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding.” In Arizona, where I practice employment law, similar statutes exist precluding retaliation for complaining about violations of the Arizona statutes.
Importantly, these anti-retaliation statutes provide real protections and severe penalties, in order to encourage harmed employees to come forward. The FLSA anti-retaliation laws subject employers who retaliate or discriminate against an employee to fines or even criminal prosecution, and the affected employee is entitled to “legal or equitable relief… including without limitation employment, reinstatement, promotion, and the payment of wages lost and an additional equal amount” plus attorneys’ fees and court costs. Punitive damages are also available in appropriate cases.
Of course, many employers are smart enough not to fire someone, but retaliate in other ways. The laws also prevent other forms of retaliation and harassment, and courts have sanctioned employers who “blacklisted” employees, refused to hire applicants who made legitimate complaints at other jobs, rendered unjust discipline, made unfair work assignments, or failed to provide normal benefits or compensation that would have otherwise been provided.
At the end of the day, there is no way to avoid the unpleasant situation that may accompany a complaint against your company, but the alternative is to continue to have your legal rights violated and, due to delay in bringing a claim, lose substantial rights. Before raising a claim and tarnishing the relationship, it is a good idea to meet with an experienced employment lawyer to determine what wages you may be owed.