Tricks that can't be played with your paycheck

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Sleights of accounting on pay checks can be Sleights of accounting on pay checks can be blatantly illegal. (Undated) Photo Credit: iStock

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Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

DEAR CARRIE: I went out on short-term disability for six months because of a medical condition. Our employer requires all employees on short-term disability to exhaust all paid time off such as vacation and sick days first. Well, when I returned to work, the company advised me that it had overpaid me by five vacation days, or one week's salary. So it took the money out of my payroll check. Is this practice legal? Do I have any legal recourse? -- Illegal Deduction?

DEAR ILLEGAL: The practice is blatantly illegal. "They cannot get the money back by deducting it from wages," said a spokeswoman for the New York State Labor Department.

Generally, except for taxes, employers can't deduct money from your pay without your written consent.

The company could have legally taken that overpayment out of any future vacation you accrue. When you accrue two weeks of vacation again, for example, the company can cut that back to one to recoup its overpayment.

But the bottom line is that your employer can't dock your wages to rectify its mistake. I would gingerly broach the subject of this illegal deduction with the company. You would actually be doing it a favor.

DEAR CARRIE: I am being laid off next month. I have a second job as an independent contractor that requires some occasional work. Will my status as an independent contractor affect my ability to apply for unemployment benefits after I am laid off from my primary job? -- Dual Status

DEAR DUAL: The fact that you have a second job as an independent contractor doesn't automatically disqualify you from receiving any benefits you are entitled to after you are laid off, said the Labor Department spokeswoman. But any earnings from the independent-contractor work could affect how much you receive in benefits.

Your status as an employee is key because independent contractors don't qualify for unemployment benefits, which are a maximum of $405 a week in New York State.

"She should file for benefits," the spokeswoman said. "And should she have freelance work during her claim year, she would have to report that work. That would reduce her benefits - or even eliminate them - for each particular week that she works."

You would also have to report any freelance earnings when you apply for benefits. By the way, your claim year is the year that you file for benefits.

 DEAR CARRIE: My uncle, who is a factory worker, has four paychecks from his employer he cannot cash because the company does not have enough funds in the bank. Is this legal? The factory is still in business. -- Check Holdup

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DEAR CHECK: This is another blatantly illegal practice.

"It is unlawful under New York State Labor Law for an employer to fail to pay wages to an employee," said Ellen Storch, counsel at Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo in Woodbury.

I urge your uncle to contact the State Labor Department to see whether the agency can help him get his money. Call 516-794-8195 or 212-775-3880.

Storch says that New York labor law gives employees the right to sue their employers over unpaid wages. And if your uncle prevails, he may be entitled to collect his attorney's fees.

Additionally, if he establishes that the company's failure to pay him was willful, he will be entitled to an additional amount equal to 25 percent of the wages due, Storch said.

And finally, she said, if your uncle has trouble enforcing any judgment he obtains, he may be able to collect the wages from the individual owners of the company.

Click here to  file a form for unpaid wages at  labor.ny.gov/formsdocs/wp/LS223.pdf

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Click here to find more on wage deductions at  labor.ny.gov/workerprotection/laborstandards/faq.shtm

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