The good news: Today The U.S. Department of Labor announced that 151,000 people were hired nationwide in the month of October. The bad news: Unemployment is still at 9.6%. I’m not quite sure how unemployment can remain steady when people are slowly trickling back to work, but I suspect it has something to do with new math. That same new math, perhaps, that led economists to declare the recession was over June 2009.

If you’re still looking for work, then today’s statistic is encouraging, but doesn’t help you right now. Nevertheless, history has shown that no matter how bad the economy gets it does eventually get better. People really do back to work, or even find new and better careers. But in the mean time, you have to eat. To bridge the gap you may have to take temporary work that pays as low as minimum wage, especially if you’re going back to school to increase your odds of obtaining a full-time career that can support you. Because minimum wage is now a key factor in the economy, for the first time since The Great Depression knowing your minimum wage rights is more important than ever.

The first minimum wage laws were enacted at the beginning of the 20th Century. Since then the U.S. Department of Labor has established a federal minimum wage across the board for all states. As of July 24, 2009, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Individual states can establish their own minimum wage, in which case the employer has to pay the employee the higher of the two.

This gets sticky, however, in the case of a tipped employee (such as wait staff in a restaurant). For these workers the employer only has to pay the employee $2.13 per hour in direct wages, as long as: A) Your wage plus tips equals $7.25 per hour, B) You get to keep ALL your tips, and C) You typically receive more than $30 per month in tips. If you’re a tipped employee who is not getting enough in tips to total $7.25 per hour, then your employer must make up the difference.

Another gray area involving minimum wage is who should get it. By law, everyone over the age of 20 is entitled to minimum wage per the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). If you’re under 20, however, your employer can opt to pay you only $4.25 per hour for the first 90 consecutive days of your employment (as long as your employer didn’t fire an older worker just so he could hire you on the cheap). This means high school and college students can start out being paid less than federal minimum wage, but after 90 days your employer has to bring you UP to minimum wage. If, however, you’re over 20, then you start at minimum wage as soon as you’re hired.

But for the working college student things can get even grayer. If you are under 20 and a full-time student, your employer may continually pay you only 85% of minimum wage ($6.16 per hour) if he/she actively participates in the Department of Labor’s Full-Time Student Program. However, your employer must be formally enrolled in this program and have a certificate of participation to prove it. It is not unreasonable for you to politely ask to see this certificate if your employer expects to pay you less than minimum wage (but at least $6.16 per hour) on a continuing basis.

Of course, there’s much more to the intricacies of minimum wage, but time prohibits us from getting down to the nitty gritty aspects of your rights. For that we leave it up to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Minimum Wage webpage. Another great resource is the Workplace Fairness on Minimum Wage website, which answers FAQ on employee and employer rights. Chances are your minimum wage question will be answered there before you even know what to ask.

So if your current employment situation dictates that you have to temporarily wait tables or work an office temp job while you go back to school (or you’re just trying to weather the economic storm), take heart in knowing that every moment (good or bad) is only temporary. Things will get better. In the mean time, you want to make sure you’re getting paid what you’re due. Because no matter how you’re presently making ends meet, every penny counts when working toward a better future.

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