Q. I recently left my job and my employer reduced my last paycheck because my tools weren’t “in good shape,” my company van had a dent (not my fault!), and because I took an advance on my vacation time. Is this legal?
A. The rules around the timeliness and money to be included in final checks are quite clear, and employers in Massachusetts are only allowed to reduce your final pay check in very limited situations. When you leave a job, you are entitled to be paid for all the hours you have worked and you are entitled to be paid for any vacation time that you have accrued but not used. If you are fired, you should get those payments on your last day of employment. If you resign, the payments can come in the next regular pay period.
According to Bill Hoch, an employment lawyer with EmCo Consulting, LLC who advises companies on Human Resources and employment law questions, Massachusetts law only allows an employer to reduce wages for “a clear and established debt owed to the employer by the employee.” The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has stated that a valid wage off-set is one that has involved “some form of due process through the court system.” In addition, an employer can offset wages for something “at an employee’s direction and in the employee’s interests.”
In your case, the wage reduction for equipment and the van are most likely illegal. From what you have said, there has been no due process or independent hearing to establish that you owe your former employer for these expenses. You have not had any chance to appeal the decision. Because of this, your company should not have reduced your final paycheck to reimburse for the damaged tools or vehicle.
The vacation pay offset is a trickier question. Your former employer may be able to offset your wages for a negative vacation balance when you leave. In order for this to be legal, your company should have a clear, written policy outlining that borrowed vacation time has to be paid back from future accruals or from wages if you leave with a balance owed. Your employer should be able to show that the vacation borrowing was done at your direction and was for your benefit. Ideally, your former employer would have asked you to sign something when you borrowed the vacation time so that the terms of repayment were clear. Finally, the offset cannot reduce your wages below a minimum level established by state and federal law.
If your employer had illegally garnished your wages, you should contact the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General to discuss this matter and seek the wages you are owed. In addition, a private attorney can bring a claim on your behalf for unpaid wages and seek triple damages as well as attorney’s fees.