Know Your Rights: 

The Real Paycheck Protection Act

by Doug Bonney

This is Doug Bonney of the Bonney Law Office here in Kansas City, and it’s time once again to Know Your Rights.

Although the Republican Congress has introduced legislation disingenuously called the Paycheck Protection Act, that law has nothing to do with making sure workers receive their full paychecks. Instead, that Paycheck Protection Act is intended to interfere with the First Amendment rights of workers who want their unions to support public education on issues of importance to working people. In fact, Congress is not interested in giving employees strong legislation that allows them to collect wages due. There is no broad federal law that covers the payment of wages. Furthermore, state laws on wage payment issues often follow a scatter-gun approach and leave major holes that allow dishonest employers to cheat their workers out of their wages while providing no easy remedy for workers to pursue.

Perhaps the most frequent complaint I get from individual employees who call my office deals with unscrupulous employers who do not pay wages due or who try to withhold part of the wages due for improper purposes. For instance, I recently had a call from a man who worked as a janitor for small Missouri company. The company had promised to pay this fellow seven dollars an hour for his labor. When it came time to give this man his paycheck, the company simply refused to pay him his $140 in wages.

When this man asked me what he could do about this injustice, I sadly told him there wasn’t much he could do because Missouri does not have any kind of wage protection legislation that gives workers an easy way to collect unpaid wages. I told him that he could file suit in small claims court. But, as a practical matter, that isn’t much help.

Federal law provides some protection for some employees. For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay at least the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. In the case of the janitor whose employer failed to pay him any wages, that law would only provide partial help. Although it would give him a way to sue for minimum wages, it would do nothing to allow him to collect the difference between $7 per hour and the minimum wage.

Furthermore, state and federal prevailing wage laws allow workers on public works projects to sue if they are paid less than the prevailing wage, which is usually the union wage rate in the area for comparable work. But these laws do not apply to private sector work, and some states—including Kansas—have repealed their prevailing wage laws.

Although Kansas law is not always friendly to workers, Kansas does have a Wage Payment Act that provides workers with a readily accessible and easy to use administrative procedure that employees can invoke if they are not paid on time, in full, or when they leave a job. If an employer fails to pay an employee the full wages due on the next regular payday, the employer is in violation of the Kansas Wage Payment Act, and the employee can file an administrative claim for wages due. The employee can make a claim by simply going to any Kansas unemployment office and filling out and turning in a Wage Claim Form. After that, the Kansas Department of Human Resources will investigate and try to get the employer to pay the wages due. If the employer still resists, the government can file a complaint and hold an administrative hearing on the claim. The employer can be held responsible for the unpaid wages plus penalties.

Rather than introducing bogus laws intended to interfere with the political rights of unionized employees, Congress should pass a real Paycheck Protection Act similar to the Kansas Wage Payment Act so that workers across the country have some rudimentary protection against employers who try to cheat their workers out of their honest pay.

This is Doug Bonney of the Bonney Law Office here in Kansas City helping you to know your rights!