Updated July 2, 2020:

Massachusetts Labor Laws

Massachusetts labor laws can be complex. The current minimum wage in Massachusetts is $12.75 per hour.

The labor laws in that state require employers to pay their employees an overtime rate of one and one half their base pay whenever they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. There are exemptions, but those situations are rare and based on circumstance.

Blue Laws

Massachusetts has laws on their books known as Blue Laws. These laws limit an employer’s capacity to require their employees to work on Sundays and federally-observed holidays. In some situations, particularly where employers are permitted to employ their employees on Sundays and/or holidays, employers may also be required to pay a rate of one and one-half times the employee’s base pay.

Meals and Breaks

According to Massachusetts labor laws, all employers are bound legally to not require employees to ever work more than six hours in a calendar day without providing them a half hour break.

The break period, or lunch period, may be unpaid, especially if employees are free and clear from all duties, and are free to leave the workplace during their break.

Employers must compensate their employees at the federal minimum wage level for the employee’s 30-minute breaks if the employees voluntarily agree to forgo their break period at the request of the employers, even if no work is performed. This could mean working through the employee’s break, or remaining on the premises, or remaining “on call.”

Employers are exempt from providing a 30-minute break to their employees if they are in the ironworks industry. The same is true for:

  • Glassworks
  • Letterpress establishments
  • Print works
  • Publishing
  • Bleaching and/or dye work
  • Paper mills
  • Any other factory-type establishments, such as workshops or machine shops

The Attorney General of Massachusetts put these exemptions in place due to the failures that could occur if employees did not remain on premises or on duty for longer than state law typically permits. These exemptions highlight the continuous nature of the many processes and circumstances inherent to those industries and are legal so long as no injury befalls any employees.

Severance Pay

Labor laws in Massachusetts do not require their employers to provide their employees with severance pay of any kind. Any employer who chooses to provide severance benefits does so at their discretion, and their process must comply with the terms of service it established in its own internal policies and employment contracts.

Untimely Payment of Wages

In the state of Massachusetts, it’s acceptable for an employer to pay all of their employees on a semimonthly, monthly, or weekly basis. The employer is not always in compliance with the law, however. State law requires employees to be paid on an hourly basis in order to receive their paycheck on either a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

It’s different for salaried employees, who can be paid weekly, biweekly, semimonthly, or monthly. Employers cannot, however, pay their salaried employees on a monthly basis unless the monthly arrangement is preferable to the employee.

Employees have to pay their employees within six business days of the close of a given pay period for which any wages were earned when the employee worked five to six days in a given week. If an employee works all seven days in a given week, their employer must pay that employee within a week. Employees who opt to, or are scheduled for overtime, are required to receive any and all overtime pay in the same payment cycle in which they earned and worked their overtime duties.

Overtime pay can’t be delayed for any reason -- it cannot be deferred to the next payment cycle, or be paid out in dividends on a monthly basis.

Failure to Pay Wages Upon Termination

On the final day of employment, particularly upon termination, an employer must pay an employee all wages owed. The same applies for employees who were laid off. An employer is required to pay a terminated or laid off worker all wages owed on their final day of employment.

If and when an employee leaves of their own accord, an employer can wait to pay that employee’s wages until the next regular payday, and the employee would be paid during the normal payment cycle.

Mischaracterization of Employees as Exempt or Nonexempt

Much like the Fair Labor Standards Act, Massachusetts state law also establishes unique categories of employees, who are to be exempted from the minimum wage and laws pertaining to overtime.

The state has adopted many of the same categories as the FLSA for bona fide positions on the executive, professional, and administrative level. Massachusetts also uses its own statutory employee dossier consisting of workers who are exempt from minimum wage and laws regarding overtime payment.

Often, companies categorize their employees as overtime exemptions, but the reality of the situation is that the law favors viewing most employees as eligible for overtime pay.

Failure to Pay Overtime For Salaried Employees

Employees that are eligible for overtime duties have to be paid one and one-half times their base pay rate for every hour they work in a given week over 40 hours.

Often, employers unknowingly violate overtime laws. It happens all the time -- employers believe overtime pay is something that is factored into employee salaries. The state believes differently and does not technically allow employers to incorporate any presumed overtime pay into any salaried employee’s base pay rate.

Just because an employee is paid on a salaried basis does not mean that they are not eligible to receive overtime pay.

An employee’s status, as far as eligibility is concerned, is tied to the type of work an employee performs for an employer, as well a threshold minimum of $455 per week, which legally must go to the employee.

Misclassification of Employees

Many times, employers attempt to (unsuccessfully) avoid their responsibilities and requirements of the wage, labor, and overtime laws by misclassifying their employees. Employers classify their employees as independent contractors in an attempt to avoid paying full employee benefits.

State law presumes any individual is an employee at an institution unless that person is free from the employer’s direction.

Massachusetts also presumes an individual to be an employee if they, during their service to an employer, perform any service outside the “usual course of business of the employer and if they are customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.”

An advisory from the Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division stated that they "will consider whether the service the individual is performing is necessary to the business of the employing unit or merely incidental in determining whether the individual may be properly classified as other than an employee under prong two.”

Improperly Taking Deductions From Wages

Employers often will not hesitate to deduct from their employee’s payments wages for, among an array of other things, losses or damage to company property presumed to have been incurred by an employee, money stolen, improperly borrowed, or embezzled from the company, or any abuse of things like school tuition, moving benefits, or education perks available through the company.

Many of these deductions are unlawful and illegal.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made it a point to address a widespread policy pertaining to whether or not workers should accept the costs of damages to company vehicles through docked pay or disciplinary action.

The state courts determined that the policy was invalid, and not a legal setoff against an employee's wages. The courts determined that the employer in those situations made itself solely responsible for damage incurred because they were the arbiters of all damage assessments, alongside a lack of appeal processes for employees, and it being too difficult to prove a “clear and established debt” under this lense.

What Is A Valid Setoff In Massachusetts?

The state attorney general makes a determination circumstantially and on a case to case basis, wherein they evaluate the understanding between a given employer and their employees. They also evaluate the reasons a setoff agreement might take place and will take into consideration the employer’s overall practices for wage deductions.

Unlawful Prepayment of Wages

A very obscure court decision from the late 50’s remains in effect today, and interpreted by state legislators, it prohibits employers from paying their wages out prospectively.

Therefore, an employer cannot pay an employee a week, biweekly, or monthly in advance in order to avoid timely payment of wages. In other words, employers cannot “pre-pay” for their employee’s time.

Failure to Pay Earned Vacation Time

Any vacation time incurred or earned under an “oral or written agreement” with an employer is treated exactly the same as wages under state law. This gives employees the same rights and protections to pursue off-time owed to them as part of their compensation.

Many employers believed they can refuse to pay earned pay to employees, or try to establish policies that require their employees to forfeit their accrued vacation time.

However, state law does allow employers the right to attempt to cap employer vacation time for employees, preventing them from earning or accruing more than a given amount. Many employers implement what is jokingly known as a “use it or lose it” policy. These policies require employees to put their accumulated benefits vis-a-vis vacation time to use before a certain date or else risk forfeiting their benefits entirely.

Employers are also able to have policies that allow their employees to hold onto their accumulated hours of vacation time, which allows the employees to use their vacation time after it has technically expired. This is discretionary.

The attorney general reviews employers’ “use it or lose it” policies, carryover policies, and wage policies, and makes a determination. They may invalidate an employer’s ability to implement these limitations if an employee isn’t provided adequate notification as to the time constraints, or opportunities to use their vacation time, before it expires.

Mischaracterization of Commissions and Bonuses

Commission is any compensation earned for work or services performed in accordance with a given employer’s internal policies, or a unique agreement between both the employee and the employer.

Commission pay is usually compensation for selling a service or product for their employer. It’s often thought of as a bonus for performance and serves as a motivator for employees. A bonus itself is recognition of an employee’s good performance and is compensation added onto the employee’s salary.

Much like vacation pay, state law does recognize these earned commissions as wages and considers them legally identical.

Once an employee accrues a commission or bonus, their employer must pay them that bonus by law. Commissions and bonuses are often conflated, and bonuses are not technically wages that are required to be paid under any circumstances. They are purely discretionary.

Requiring Work on Sundays And Holidays

State law also prohibits most business types from opening on Sundays, and some holidays, as per their “blue laws.”

Unique provisions apply to some retail establishments who opt to remain open and in operation on Sundays, requiring payment of premiums and prohibiting any employers from mandating their employees to work on a Sunday. These provisions are meant to provide state employers with a guide to state wage, hour, and labor laws. This helps employers avoid falling into many of the common traps a company can fall into by not being attentive.

It is not meant to be an end-all, be-all document, and it is not the most comprehensive document on state wage and labor laws that is available.

Employers should be careful to review their policies with legal counsel, especially if they believe, after reviewing the above provisions that they may not be complying with state laws involuntarily.

Introduction to Employment Law in Massachusetts

Massachusetts strives to be, and often is, considered to be an employee-friendly state.

Most state employment requirements are well-documented and available for employers to better understand the laws that impact their employee-employer relations while conducting business in the state. Employers must comply with federal and state laws both.

If you’d like assistance or more information on Massachusetts state law, post your legal need to UpCounsel’s marketplace. Lawyers from UpCounsel consist of Harvard and Yale graduates, who have an average of 14 years of legal experience. They are top lawyers who have worked with the largest companies in the country and are standing by to assist with your legal and business needs.