Unpaid Wages? How to Quickly See If an Employer Owes You Money

Are you owed wages? It takes just a few minutes to find out if the government has money you can recover.

Clifford Colby Managing Editor
Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
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Clifford Colby
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The Department of Labor recovers millions of dollars a year in unpaid wages.

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Are you due back wages? Maybe you earned less than minimum wage or worked unpaid hours or didn't get extra pay for overtime. The US Department of Labor might have your money, and it's easy to find it.

The Department of Labor in 2022 recovered more than $32.5 million for health care workers, $32.9 million for construction workers and $27.1 million for those in food service -- an average of $1,393 for back wages for every worker owed. If the department's Wage and Hour Division finds that an employer hasn't fairly paid employees -- sometimes called wage theft -- it can make that company pay what it owes, and then direct the money to the workers who've been cheated. 

However, if the agency can't find you to give you the wages you're owed (for example, you've moved or changed your name), it'll hold on to the money for three years to give you time to file a claim for it. Read on to learn how to find out if you have unpaid wages to recover and how to claim them. For more, learn how to check if your state owes you money or property and how to get it. And here's how much Social Security payments could go up in 2024.

Why is the Department of Labor holding my back pay?

If the Department of Labor'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 isn't able to contact you, it holds your back wages for three years. After that, it's required by law to send your 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 from the Department of Labor

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 department's Workers Owed Wages search tool.

2. In the Search Employer by Name or keyword 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 Continue with Selected Company.

4. In the next window, enter your first and last names and tap Check Name. If the tool finds the division is holding unclaimed wages, it will direct you to a Department of Labor 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 money you're owed

If you think your employer has withheld wages that don't appear on the Workers Owed Wages tool, you can file a complaint with the department. You'll need to provide information such as pay, hours worked and pay stubs for the federal department 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 is the federal minimum wage, and what are overtime rules?

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A state or city 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. Also note that state laws may define overtime differently. California, for example, requires overtime pay after an eight-hour work day.

For more, here's how to check the status of your income tax refund and how solar panel tax credits work.