The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," ran in the Champaign News Gazette.
I operate a cash register at work. It’s not unusual for a cash register to be short at the end of a shift. My employer says that whenever a register is short more than a certain amount, they can make deductions from our paycheck. Can they do that?
Not without your permission. They could discipline you, or even fire you, but they can’t take any money unless you agree in writing. Any deduction from your wages that’s kept by your employer has to be completely voluntary.
Deductions that can be made without your permission are legally required deductions (taxes and Social Security), wage assignments you agreed to, and child support payments ordered by a judge or an administrative agency.
The Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act is the law that applies. It governs how employers must pay their employees.
It says an employer can’t make deductions beyond the specifically allowed ones unless those extra deductions are “made with the express written consent of the employee, given freely at the time the deduction is made.”
The regulations that go along with the law specifically prohibit the deductions you’re talking about. Without that express written consent, “an employer shall not deduct from an employee's pay or otherwise demand reimbursement from an employee for cash and/or inventory shortages.” Same for a “failure to follow proper credit card, check cashing or accounts receivable procedures.”
In fact, the law covers any kind of extra deduction, including deductions to pay for breakage or property damage, required uniforms, and cash advances. If the employer wants you pay for anything out of your paycheck, you have to agree in writing.
An employer can discipline you, or even fire you, for cash register shortages. A big employer told me several years they didn’t try to deduct from anyone’s wages for cash register shortages, but they did have a clearly defined system of progressive discipline.
If you do consent to deductions from your wages, the only limit on the amount is if it’s to repay a cash advance. Then, the deduction can’t be more than 15% of your gross pay.
If your employer makes deductions without your consent, you can make a wage claim with the Illinois Department of Labor. They investigate and resolve wage complaints, and they can sue your boss on your behalf. You can also sue your boss yourself.
If you signed a deduction agreement under pressure from your boss, you can still file a wage claim with the Department of Labor. The law specifically provides for resolving disputes over deductions. And it’s illegal for an employer to fire you for filing a wage claim.
The law says that cashing a paycheck when there’s a dispute over wages does not waive your right to pursue a wage claim, even if the employer’s check says it’s a final settlement of all claims. So you can’t lose any rights to file a claim or sue for lost wages by cashing a paycheck.
Employers are supposed to post a notice summarizing your rights under the law “in a position readily accessible to all employees.” A commonly used notice simply says, not very helpfully, “unauthorized deductions from paychecks are not allowed except as authorized by law.”
Editor's Note: The Wage Payment Collection Act also says that your employer must pay you the wages they promise to pay you. If your employer has not paid you the amount they promised, it is wage theft.
Updated: June 2017