Is It Legal to Give an Employee a Pay Cut

Let’s Talk Business Kingmaker Society Community Chat Is It Legal to Give an Employee a Pay Cut

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    Reducing an employee’s pay is no minor thing. A pay cut can be anything from illegal, financially troubling, emotionally unsettling, to devastating. Before cutting an employee’s pay, employers should consider the effects. Sometimes the repercussions aren’t worth it.

    When a Pay Cut Is Acceptable

    In some situations, employees accept the change, like when everyone in the company or department is getting a pay cut for the benefit of the business. In other case, employees welcome it, like when they want less responsibility. And sometimes, a pay cut is intended to get employees to quit. There may be better ways to go about this, but at least in this case the effects align with the intentions.

    When a Pay Cut Really Cuts

    Most of the time, employees don’t see a pay cut in the same light as their employers. Thoughts usually circle back to, “This isn’t fair” and, “Is this even legal”.

    In a recession, or any time a company is struggling to survive, a pay cut might be a valid strategy to keep the business afloat. Loyal employees may be sympathetic and willing to hang on through the hard time, that is of course if upper management is also taking a pay cut. If the reason is to line the pockets of upper management, though, employees won’t take kindly to the company hardship.

    Reasons employees don’t appreciate

    • Corrections to what might have been a poor choice in original salary
    • Complaints by other employees about one employee’s rate
    • Realization that the employee is overpaid for the location or job description
    • Cash flow problems, if upper management doesn’t also take a pay cut

    Mortgage and other bills

    When employees buy homes, lenders base their loans on their income. Employees also buy cars, sign up for classes, school, and all the other things that cost money. Most people live according to how much money they make, so when that gets cut, hardship presents.

    Emotional effect of a pay cut

    A pay cut speaks a thousand words and those words usually hurt. Unless your objective is to get an employee to quit, be aware that a pay cut may prompt a job hunt. Even if it’s not true, employees usually see the pay cut as a demotion or take it as a hint that they are not appreciated. In either case, they will leave at first opportunity. If you really value the employee and want them to stay, you might be better off just swallowing those few extra bucks per week and instead tell the employee that you cannot offer a raise this year. While that’s never fun either, it’s not as hard a blow as a pay cut.

    When a Pay Cut Is Not Legal

    Most of the time it is legal to reduce an employee’s pay but there are some instances in which it isn’t.

    • Surprise – A surprise pay cut is illegal. Employers are obligated to pay employees the agreed-upon rate. If employers wish to change that rate, they can do so but first employees must agree to it. If they choose not to agree to it, they can discontinue service with the company. But employers cannot tell employees that the paycheck they already worked for is going to be smaller than expected.
    • Retroactive – Employers also don’t have the right to tell employees that their pay rate is changing and that the rate is retroactive some number of days. The pay rate can only change for any time after informing the employee.
    • Retaliation – If an employee complains about sexual harassment or other inappropriate office behavior, the employer cannot lower her pay rate in retaliation. It is not the right way to deal with this situation and retaliation is against the law.
    • Discrimination – Pay rates cannot be lowered based on race or gender. For example, if the company is struggling, the employer cannot legally cut the rates of all female employees to improve cash flow.
    • Breach of Contract – When employers have a contract with employees, they have a duty to pay them a certain rate for a certain amount of time. Once this time period is up, the employer can notify the employee of the pay cut and renegotiate the contract.

    Additionally, regarding employee classifications, hourly employees must always make at least minimum wage, even after a pay cut. Exempt employees rates of pay cannot fluctuate. In other words, you couldn’t ask your exempt employees to take a pay cut during the slow months. If you needed to do this, you would have to switch the employee from salary to hourly.


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    Dylan Thomas
    My employer has mentioned they will probably be implementing a 25% pay reduction to all remaining employees, including themselves (according to them). What I’m concerned about is that they are lowering our wages so that when they lay us off our vacation and personal time will only have to be paid out at the lower rate. Am I correct to assume that will be the case?
    J. Klien
    I think the answer is yes, and no, Dylan. Time you have already earned at the old rate is worth the dollar amount at that old rate. Meanwhile, time earned at the new rate is worth the dollar amount of the new rate. I’m pretty sure an employer cannot devalue the time already earned by applying the new pay rate. That would be wrong. So, old time should be paid at the old rate, and any accrued time earned after the pay rate change would be subject to the new rate. A good idea would be to take a snapshot of your existing saved hours before the pay cut kicks in. Those should be paid out at the old rate. Knowing how many hours you had will make it easy to ask about if and when the time comes.
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