Commissioned Employees in a Tough Economy: Will You Get Paid?

Employees who receive commissions based on their work performance may face difficulty in securing payments from employers in this tough economy. Under certain circumstances, however, legal recourse exists to secure payment from unscrupulous employers who attempt to cut corners by depriving employees of legally earned commissions.

The Massachusetts Wage Act, namely M.G.L. c. 149, §148, explicitly defines the term “wages” to equal “commissions” where certain parameters are satisfied:

This section shall apply … to the payment of commissions when the amount of such commissions, less allowable or authorized deductions, has been definitely determined and has become due and payable to such employee ….

Where commissions are “due and payable” and “definitely determined,” the caselaw in Massachusetts makes clear that the Wage Act applies to highly paid executives, and not just hourly workers. In Wiedmann v. Bradford Group, Inc., the Supreme Judicial Court upheld a claim of pay to a professional who had earned an irregular commission which had been held, by the trial court, to have been unprotected. Thereafter, the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Okerman v. VA Software Corp. followed the Wiedmann decision, and explicitly held it was reversible error to dismiss wage claims of highly paid executives claiming irregular, contingent commissions, above and beyond a “healthy” base salary. The Appeals Court further opined that to exclude the recovery of such commissions would “vitiate the entire paragraph in the Wage Act addressing commissions,” and render the commissions paragraph meaningless.

It is illegal for an employer to in any way penalize an employee who attempts to recover unpaid commissions. The Supreme Judicial Court in Smith v. Winter Place, LLC has interpreted this provision to cover internal complaints: “Complaint made to an employer (or a manger of the employer) by an employee who reasonably believes that the wages he or she has been paid violate such laws readily qualifies as” protected conduct.

When seeking to recover unpaid commissions, its important to determine first whether the commissions can be construed as “wages” under the Massachusetts Wage Act, and second to ensure that you are protected from retaliation.