Ask The Lawyer By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq. – Spilled Coffee = Lost Wages?

mage by Pexels from Pixabay 


QUESTION: I was working at my desk about three weeks ago, when I inadvertently spilled a cup of coffee onto my work laptop. I got chewed out by my boss, promised to be more careful, felt terrible about it, and generally had a lousy day. When I received my paycheck this week, I saw I was charged $450 for “damage to company property” for the laptop. Can they do that? If they can, should they charge me a new laptop price for a laptop that was about five years old?

ANSWER: Before we can answer that question, we have a question of our own: Are you a non-exempt employee (paid hourly, with overtime) or exempt (paid a salary, no overtime)?

The Fair Labor Standards Act lists several situations in which deductions can be made from a salaried worker’s pay – and paying for damaged equipment isn’t among them., In fact, making an improper deduction can cause the employer to lose the benefit of classifying the employee as exempt (no overtime).

The Department of Labor, which enforces the FLSA through its Wages and Hours Division, has stated that deductions for “shortages, damages and loss of equipment” are not allowed” for salaried workers.

The rule is a little different for non-exempt, hourly workers. If workers agree, in writing, to allow a deduction for damage or loss of workplace property, the deduction might be allowed, but only if three other conditions are satisfied: The deduction must not bring the employee’s hourly rate below the federal minimum wage; the employee voluntarily consents, in advance, to the agreement and the consent is not “a condition for obtaining or continuing employment”; and the deduction is for the benefit or convenience of the employee. “Tools of the trade and other materials and services incidental to carrying on the employer’s business” are generally viewed as being for the convenience of the employer.

When an employer is allowed to charge for such equipment, it is limited to the “reasonable costs.” If the laptop was six years old, its reasonable cost would likely be less than $450 (and, shopping around, your employer should be able to find a new or reconditioned laptop for less than $450).

Long story short, you should ask your employer to rethink charging you for the loss of the laptop – unless your employer wants to be in violation of the law. (Note, the result might be different if the worker was in violation of a workplace safety policy.)

The lawyers at GWINN LEGAL PLLC are experienced attorneys and are happy to answer your questions. Give us a call for a free initial telephone consultation about your legal needs. For consideration of your questions in our web column, please submit your inquiry on the “Contact Us” page of our website at

Information provided on “Ask the Lawyer” is current as of the date of publication. Laws and their interpretation are subject to change. The material provided through “Ask the Lawyer” is informational only; it should not be considered legal advice. Submitting a question to “Ask the Lawyer” does not create an attorney-client relationship between the person submitting the question and GWINN LEGAL PLLC. To view previous columns, please visit our website.

By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
900 Wilshire Drive, Suite 104
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 970-0310
(248) 970-0311 facsimile
[email protected]