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Should you be getting overtime?

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But in the real world, your success in getting back pay and maintaining a harmonious work relationship may depend on why you weren't getting overtime in the first place. If your employer genuinely does not understand the law (and many don't), then it might just take a friendly reminder.

If, on the other hand, you've got a manager who is skirting overtime rules to cut costs, you might need to take a different approach. If management is really underhanded, you could be fired. (Although your superior would have to give an alternative explanation because terminating someone for requesting overtime is illegal -- and could open the company up to federal scrutiny and a lawsuit.)

There are a few ways to approach the situation.

If you should be receiving overtime, follow these steps:
Congratulations! Now what?
1. Gather information.
2. Start a notebook.
3. Try to pinpoint the problem.
4. Investigate company remedies.
5. Write down your complaint.
6. File complaint with Department of Labor.
7. Find out if your state offers assistance.
8. Hire an attorney.

1. Gather information. Before you do anything, learn more about the law. Read about your rights under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. See minimum wage rates for each state. Or ask a question confidentially by calling the federal Department of Labor at: (866) 487-9243. You can also get information from your state department of labor.

2. Start a notebook. "Keep meticulous records," says Eric Kingsley, partner in Kingsley & Kingsley, a Los Angeles-based firm that represents employees in wage and hour issues. Some examples: time cards, a work diary with hours and duties, or a calendar with the times of day you start and stop work.

3. Try to pinpoint the problem. Is the overtime situation specific to select managers or ingrained in the corporate culture? "In areas where people are instructed to work off the clock, it's often not a companywide or corporate issue," says Nierman. Many times it is a local issue or rogue manager trying to save money, he says.

In that instance, as in others, he says, "the most effective way -- and usually the quickest and most likely to get things remedied -- is to bring it to the attention of management.

"That might not be your direct supervisor," Nierman says. And if you suspect your own manager is the problem, this is one way around him.

"Work your way up the chain of command," says Kingsley. "Most companies want to do right." Some avenues of possible help: the human resources department, a regional (as opposed to direct) manager, corporate counsel or any hot line the company might have established for airing grievances.

4. Investigate company remedies. To protect themselves (and their workers), many companies establish some sort of procedure to keep management in the loop about potential problems. Sometimes it's informal, like chatting with the human resources administrator. Or it could be more formal, like a special hot line.

5. Write down your complaint. When you do approach your company, follow up with an e-mail or memo, "so you have something in writing to show a request was made," says Borgen.

6. File a complaint with U.S. Department of Labor. If you lodge a complaint, the department will likely audit the company's wage and hour practices, often for many different positions.

7. Find out if your state offers any assistance. Many states, such as California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, have strong labor laws, says Kingsley. "There may be a remedy available to you without hiring a lawyer."

8. Hire an attorney. While you're protected under federal law, this step could make your work life more difficult. "Usually my clients come to me after they've already left," says Kingsley.

The federal statute of limitations for going back to an ex-employer for overtime is three years. Some states, such as California and New York, allow more time. But usually, to make it worth an attorney's time, the dispute amount has to be at least $10,000 or several employees making similar claims.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Feb. 16, 2007
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