In two separate places the Torah commands us to pay workers on time. “Don’t oppress your fellow, and don’t steal; don’t leave the worker’s hire with you until morning” (Vayikra 19:13); and “Don’t oppress the hire of the poor and needy from your brother or the proselyte in our land and gates; give him his hire the same day, don’t let the sun set on it, for he is poor and his soul is set on it; so that he should not call against you to HaShem, and it will considered a sin in you.” (Devarim 24:14-15.)
PROTECTING THE WEAK
In the case of a loan, the Torah is solicitous of the debtor, the one who has to pay. The creditor is forbidden to dun him if he can’t pay, to take collateral from his vital possessions, and so on. But in the case of a debt of wages, the Torah defends the creditor, and commands the employer who owes the money to pay promptly.
In each case the law comes to protect the party who is most likely to be weak and exploited. The poor person is the one who needs to borrow money for his sustenance, and he may be unable to compel the employer to pay on time.
Technically, the law applies to any hire, including renting out tools and animals and the like. But we see from the explicit mention of the worker’s hire, and the rationale that “his soul is set on it”, that the most important kind of hire is wages.
NOT A SLAVE
It is a legal principle that “a rental is like a sale on its day” (Bava Metzia 56b). For the duration of a rental the renter is like the owner. This applies to some extent even to hiring people, and a hired worker in halakha is comparable in some ways to a bonded servant. Many laws of hire have as their purpose to protectthe worker from being treated like an actual slave.
For instance, the worker may quit any time he likes for the very reason that he is a free person; HaShem says (Vayikra 25:55), “the children of Israel are slaves to Me”, and our Sages inferred: slaves to HaShem, but not slaves to other slaves, that is, our fellow men (Bava Metzia 10a).
Some sources warn a person against hiring himself out for too long a period, lest his extended hire should make him feel like a slave (Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 333:3 in Rema).
It is forbidden to demean a bonded servant with busy-work (Sifra on Vayikra 25:43). By extension, we learn that this is improper for a hired worker as well (Sefer HaChinukh 346, Maharam Rottenburg Responsa 4:85).
When a bonded servant is released, his master must give him generous gifts (Devarim 15:14); many authorities learn from this that severance pay is praise- worthy and proper. (See the Chinukh on this mitzva.)
TAKING HIS SOUL
The Torah passage above informs us that the worker “sets his soul” on his wage; the gemara (Bava Metzia 112a) tells us that when the employer delays payment, it is as if he takes away his soul. We know that a conscientious worker puts his soul into his work; when his work is not properly acknowledged, he suffers not only from the lost income but also from a demeaning feeling that his contribution is not appreciated.
Surprisingly, one opinion in the Midrash states that the employer removes his own soul when he delays wages. His soul too is set on the wage he pays; his humanity is gauged by whether he relates to his workers as people with human feelings and sensitivity, or as one more factor of production to which one day’s difference in the timing of payment makes little difference (Yalkut Shimoni on Vayikra 19:13).