National Consumers League

Worker Rights

Worker Rights

Seasonal workers: beware summertime wage theft

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Female in lifeguard shirt with pool and kids in backgroundSummer is fast approaching, and so is the time for seasonal employment. With the temporary and quick nature of seasonal work, the risk for wage theft violations against summer workers is high. Whether you're a student looking for work between semesters or someone who needs to earn extra money to make ends meet, workers often jump at summer employment opportunities and, as a result, don’t ask a lot of questions of their new employers.

So, what are some of the basic employment questions that one should ask?

Am I an employee or an independent contractor?

Most workers assume that they’re classified as an employee, but an increasing number of companies are classifying their workers as independent contractors. This question and the corresponding answer are significant and can cost a worker even months after the job is finished. If one is classified as an employee then their employer will pay the required employment taxes and one is covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA guarantees the rights to be paid the minimum wage (the highest between the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and one’s state minimum wage), to be paid overtime for any time worked over 40 hours a week at 1 ½ times one’s regular hourly rate, and to be paid workers compensation if they’re injured on the job.

However, if one is classified as an independent contractor then they’re not covered under the FLSA and therefore are not entitled to the minimum wage, paid overtime and workers compensation. One is also expected to pay all of their employment related taxes come tax time and should put aside about one-third of their earnings to cover their tax bill. If the classification question is not asked up front, then one runs the risk of finding out when tax forms are mailed – employees receive a W-2 tax form while independent contractors receive a 1099 tax form. Employee misclassification, when an employer purposely misclassifies an employee as an independent contractor, is a leading form of wage theft and not only affects the worker but their community, state government and the federal government too.

What am I earning per hour?

As long as one is an employee and works outside of agriculture then one should be paid at least the federal minimum wage, $7.25 a hour. However, if one works in a state with a higher state minimum wage then one is entitled to the higher wage. There are currently 18 states plus the District of Columbia with a higher state minimum wage than the federal rate. Check to see if your state is one of them.

Am I a tipped worker?

Tipped workers such as servers, bartenders, hosts, and others are paid the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour plus tips, however, in some states the tipped minimum wage is higher than the federal rate. The tips are supposed to bring up one’s hourly rate to the federal minimum wage. If the tips collected do not bring one’s wage to $7.25 an hour then the employer is supposed to make up the difference. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and all too often employers fail to meet this requirement.

These three basic employment questions are a good starting point and should serve as a jumping off point for a conversation with one’s employer. Remember, wage theft can happen to anyone and its important to know the facts and question anything that seems fishy. For more information on wage theft and how to recognize the signs please visit the National Consumers League’s 6 Common Methods of Wage Theft webpage or the Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division website at and/or call the toll-free information and helpline, available 8am to 5pm in your time zone, 1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243).