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Are you owed back pay from an employer? How to check and claim unpaid wages

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being held in back pay for employees by the US government. We'll tell you what you need to know.

Do you have unclaimed wages?
Sarah Tew/CNET

Does an employer owe you unpaid wages? The federal government could be holding back pay from an employer that you need to claim -- and it's easy to find out. The Department of Labor recovered $257 million in back pay in 2020 from employers who owed workers money due to paying less than minimum wage, for example, or withholding overtime pay.

Over the last five years, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor has recovered back wages for more than 1.3 million workers. If the government agency discovers that an employer owes you back wages, it can make the company pay out the difference. However, if the agency can't locate you to give you the money (for example, you moved or changed your name), it will hold onto the back wages for you to claim.

We'll explain how to find out if you have unpaid wages to recover and how to claim them. Meanwhile, here's how to quickly see if your state owes you money. If you have kids, find out your share of the $3,600 child tax credit and what two IRS portals will do.

Why is the US government holding my back pay?

If the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division finds an employer has violated labor minimum wage and overtime laws covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act, it attempts to recover those unpaid wages by making the employer pay the full amount it owes you. 

If the agency couldn't contact you, it holds your back wages for three years. After that, it's required by law to send the money to the US Treasury. You won't be able to claim back pay after that time.

How to see if you have back pay to claim

There's a quick and easy process for finding out if there are any unpaid wages you have a right to claim. 

1. Head to the DOL's Workers Owed Wages search tool.

2. In the Search Employer by Name field, enter the company name that may owe you back wages and tap the WOW Search button.

3. If the search tool finds a match, it displays the company name in the results field. Select the company and tap Next.

4. In the next window, enter your first initial and last name and tap Submit. If the tool finds the division is holding unclaimed wages, it will direct you to a DOL office that can verify your information and then send a check for the back pay.

How to claim unpaid wages from an employer to get your money

If you think your employer has withheld wages that don't appear on the Workers Owed Wages tool above, you can file a complaint with the DOL. You'll need to provide information such as pay, hours worked and pay stubs for the DOL to determine whether to start an investigation. You may also contact your state's labor agency to file a complaint.

cash with magnifying glass

You can file a complaint if you think your employer owes you money.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What are the current minimum wage and overtime rules?

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A state may have a higher minimum wage rate and, in a situation where an employee is covered by both federal and state wage laws, the employee may qualify for the higher minimum wage. Check with your state labor agency for more.

Employees covered under the federal overtime regulations should receive 1.5 times their regular rate of pay after working 40 hours in a work week. Note that the federal regulations do not require overtime pay for weekends or holidays unless working on those days exceeds 40 hours in a work week. Note that state laws may define overtime differently. California, for example, requires overtime pay after an 8-hour work day.

For more ways to track money the government owes you, here's how to check the status of your income tax refund, how to get thousands back on child care expenses and how to see who much you could expect to receive starting in July with the monthly child tax credit payments.