The scenario is a common one. An employee quits or is discharged before the end of the pay period. The employer has the employee’s final paycheck, and the employee has certain property belonging to the employer (e.g., a uniform, laptop computer, cell phone). The employer explains to the employee that it will give the employee his/her final paycheck as soon as the employee returns the employer’s property.
In Pennsylvania, the employer’s proposed swap of paycheck for property may run afoul of the law. The Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law expressly states that whenever an employee is separated from employment, the wages or compensation earned "shall become due and payable not later than the next regular payday of his employer on which such wages would otherwise be due and payable."
Simply put, a employer in Pennsylvania cannot use the final paycheck as leverage to recover its property, even if it is not disputed that the employer is legally entitled to the property. Holding the final paycheck exposes an employer to potential liquidated damages and liability for the employee’s attorney fees, in addition to the value of the withheld wages.
Employers essentially have two options (neither of which are ideal) when giving employees property for their use that the employer wants returned at the end of the employment relationship. In the first option, the employer can get written authorization from the employee to deduct the cost of any unreturned equipment from the employee’s final paycheck. This option, however, presents some risk. The Wage Payment and Collection Law allows deductions from the paycheck with the employee’s written authorization if the deduction is "for the convenience of the employe[e]." It is unclear whether deducting the cost of an unreturned laptop from an employee’s final paycheck is a deduction "for the convenience of the employee" and thus permissible. In addition, the final paycheck itself may be insufficient to cover the cost of the unreturned property. This problem is made worse by the fact that the deduction should not take an employee’s wages during the final pay period below the statutory minimum wage.
The second option is to pursue legal action against the employee for the cost of the unreturned property. In many cases, such legal action would be in the form of a civil action filed with a District Justice. In many circumstances, an employer spends time and resources pursuing the property in such a legal action well in excess of the value of the property itself.
There exists no perfect solution to the problem of employees failing to return an employer’s property upon separation of employment. Despite the lack of good solutions, holding the final paycheck as leverage is not a permissible option and may result in additional liability.