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Seniority, performance, tasks, years on the job and experience often affect pay. Your employer can use any of these reasons for paying you less than coworkers doing the same job, although some courts have ruled against employers making these claims. A first step in finding out what your employer can or cannot do with your pay is understanding how the law protects it.
Fair Labor Standards Act
Your employer can't pay you less than the federal minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act. States set their own minimum wages and if your state's is higher than the Fed's, your employer must pay the higher rate. Also, if your employer pays you by the hour and you work over 40 hours in any given week, your employer must pay you 1.5 times your base wage for every additional hour you work. The FLSA doesn't set wages or decide whether rates are unfair between you and your coworkers, but it does bar your employer from paying you below a certain amount or not paying overtime if you qualify.
Pay Equity Act
The Equal Pay Act doesn't allow your employer to pay you less than a coworker doing a similar job. Congress passed the EPA in 1963, mostly to ensure that women earn the same pay rates as men doing similar work. However, the law protects both genders. Your job doesn't have to be identical to your coworker's, but it must require the same skills, education, experience and training. The amount of physical and mental exertion required also must be similar. If two people hold the same job and one of them performs a task requiring more exertion, the employer can pay that worker more. An assembly line worker who both assembles and packs up goods can be paid more for the energy needed for the extra task. The employer has the same right if two people hold the same job, but one has more significant responsibilities. An example is a salesperson who not only meets with clients but also may offer buyers pay options. Turning off office lights at the end of the workday doesn't merit higher pay.
Coworkers who have been on the job longer than you have seniority. Some workplaces give employees with seniority preference when doling out pay raises and promotions. Union-represented employees make decisions and negotiate wages and other workplace issues based on seniority. If your employer bases pay raises on seniority, veteran coworkers doing the same job as you are likely earning more, despite your performance and qualifications. Seniority systems are legal, but they're being challenged in courts as unfair employment practices.
Your boss or a human resource manager might be able to resolve your pay-disparity issue. If not, you can file a complaint with your state or local federal labor agency or get help from a union if you're a member. Hiring a lawyer specializing in employment grievances is another option, but you might first need to file a complaint with a government agency. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, handles complaints about discriminatory practices. Employees who believe they're being paid less than other workers doing similar work because of gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion or disability can file a claim with the EEOC. The agency favors settling disputes out of court, but it can require employers found guilty of discrimination to pay fines, end unfair practices and pay you back wages. The Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division handles complaints under the FLSA. Have documents to back up your complaint. Pay stubs, tax returns, descriptions of events, work schedules and written witness testimonies can verify pay discrepancies.
- U.S. Department of Labor: Compliance Assistance - Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
- Nolo: The Equal Pay Act: Equal Pay for Women
- Fordham University: LABOR LAW- Seniority Rules- An Otherwise Bona Fide Seniority System that Perpetuates Effects of Pre-Title VII Discrimination Is Not Unlawful
- LegalMatch; Unfair Wages Lawyers; Ken LaMance
- Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images