Every year, employers steal billions of dollars from their workers.
As Interfaith Worker Justice executive director Kim Bobo describes in Wage Theft in America, they don’t pay the minimum wage, don’t pay overtime, issue checks that bounce, pay only by the day or job, pay less than legally required prevailing or living wage standards, impose illegal charges,
force work off the clock, and even charge for the privilege of working
in hope of tips.
The practices are widespread, especially in low-wage industries. Studies
have shown wage theft in 60 percent of nursing homes, 67 to 89 percent
of non-monitored garment factories, 25 to 62 percent of commercial farms,
half of day labor projects, and all poultry plants, Bobo writes.
And the government in recent years has done next to nothing.
As the Government Accountability Office reported Thursday, following up on Congressional testimony in March, half of fictitious
complaints it called into the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour
Division weren’t even recorded.
Also, GAO identified serious flaws in the investigations in real cases, which “were often delayed by months or years,” creating a risk of the workers’ cases becoming ineligible for passing the statute of limitations.
In response, House Democrats on Thursday introduced legislation that
would “freeze the statute of limitations from the date an employer is
informed of an investigation until the agency notifies the employer that
the investigation has been completed.”
Bobo called it “one important step for stopping and deterring wage
theft.” But her group also wants to toughen penalties, require employers
to provide pay stubs, and protect complaining workers against retaliation.
The Center for American Progress also calls for tougher penalties, more
enforcement staff and partnership with unions and other groups,
targeting sectors with high violations, better record-keeping, and more
protection for immigrant workers, whose abuse by employers drives down
standards for everyone.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who famously promised to be “the new
sheriff in town,” has made several highly praised appointments to her
staff, and just announced plans to hire 250 new Wage and Hour Division
Ultimately, empowering workers on the job is the key to enforcement of
laws and the prevention of wage theft. But after years of neglect, there are
signs of progress.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.