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When can an employer pay less than the federal minimum wage under the FLSA?

As a general rule, employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) must pay employees at least the federal minimum wage. There are, however, some exceptions. Keep in mind that state minimum wage laws may be more generous than federal law

Employees under 20 years of age may be paid a minimum wage of $4.25 per hour during the first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer. These 90 consecutive calendar days start with and include the first actual day of work, and it does not matter how many days the youth actually works during those 90 days. Wages must then be increased to the current FLSA minimum wage on day 91. Employers may not displace any employee to hire someone at the youth minimum wage.

The FLSA also allows for the employment of certain individuals at wage rates below the minimum wage after they have applied for and received certain certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor, as follows:

  • Full-time students. The Full-Time Student Program is for full-time students employed in retail or service stores, agriculture, or colleges and universities. An employer with an approved certificate for the student may pay him or her between 85% and 100% of the minimum wage. The hours that the student may work are limited to eight hours in a day and no more than 20 hours per week when school is in session, and 40 hours when school is out. Once students graduate or leave school for good, they must be paid the current minimum wage.
  • Student learners. This section of the FLSA is for high school students at least 16 years old (or at least 18 years old if employed in a hazardous occupation), receiving instruction in a vocational education program and employed on a part-time basis. An employer with an approved certificate may pay the student between 75% and 100% of the minimum wage for as long as the student is enrolled in the vocational education program. Once the student leaves the program, he or she must be paid the current minimum wage.
  • Workers with disabilities. This portion of the FLSA allows employers with an approved certificate to pay a subminimum wage to individuals whose earning capacity for the work to be performed is impaired by physical or mental disabilities. These disabilities may include blindness, mental illness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism and drug addiction. A special minimum wage can be set by the employer, commensurate with the worker's individual productivity in proportion to the wage and productivity of experienced workers who do not have disabilities.

Additionally, though tipped employees must still earn at least minimum wage for all hours worked, they can be paid $2.13 per hour as long as that, plus their tips, equals minimum wage for all hours worked. 


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