A virtually unnoticed crime wave is under way. The perps are our most respected citizens. The crime is wage theft. This happens when you aren’t paid the minimum wage or overtime, are forced to work off the clock, denied meal breaks, have your tips pocketed by the boss or just plain not paid at all.
The Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, estimated that companies annually steal $19 billion in unpaid overtime. In 2009, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) released a survey of more than 4,000 workers in Chicago, L.A. and New York, which reported that 26 percent of them got paid less than the minimum wage, 76 percent were denied overtime and that workers lost an average of $2,634 a year due to these and other workplace violations.
Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) says wage theft is “the worst kind of theft. It takes away people’s abilities to care for themselves and care for their families. This isn’t about stealing a TV or stealing a car, but about stealing someone’s ability to have a home or to have enough food to put on the table.”
Singer introduced a bill in the Democratic-controlled state legislature that would have made the nonpayment of earned wages — now a civil matter — a crime in cases where employers were solvent and able to pay. It was killed in committee. He had a similar bill in the previous GOP-controlled session that suffered the same fate.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment helps employees who are victims of wage theft, but unfortunately they have only a few employees to help the thousands of workers who file claims for owed wages every year. This is not unusual. In These Times recently reported that “as the ranks of low-wage workers have swelled since the recession, Democratic and Republican legislatures in more than a dozen states have quietly slashed funding for agencies that enforce minimum wage law. … State labor officials and researchers around the country tell In These Times that low-wage workers facing abusive employers increasingly have nowhere to turn.”
Agencies that enforce labor law are being singled out for attack by right-wing groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They claim that businesses will obey the law without any policing. Last year the chamber claimed, “Regulations have an impact regardless of whether a company gets inspected.”
Jacob Meyer, a staff lawyer with the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School, disagrees. He co-authored a 2011 study on state and local enforcement of labor law which warned that lack of meaningful enforcement is leading to a “regulatory race to the bottom” among states attempting to attract business. “It directly undermines those employers who abide by the law,” Meyer says.
Meanwhile, in Boulder and Denver, private grassroots groups end up trying to play cop. Boulder County Labor Justice Committee (BCLJC) has been assisting victims of wage theft in this county. In the year it has been around, more than $3,000 has been recovered for unpaid work. In a meeting of BCLJC I attended at the Boulder YWCA, we went over pay records of individual employees of a Boulder County firm to find hours where the minimum wage was not paid. Only a few of this company’s employees attended the meeting, but it was suspected that others were ripped off and were too intimidated to speak up.
In Denver, El Centro Humanitario has a Wage Claim Clinic in partnership with the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Victimized workers actively participate in worker’s rights trainings, provide investigative services, and participate in collective actions on their own behalf. Since its inception in 2002, the program has recovered $80,000 to $100,000 in lost wages per year.
Recently, fast food workers in several major cities held short, courageous strikes demanding raises to $15 an hour and the chance to form unions without intimidation. They also called for an end to rampant wage theft. Fast Food Forward released a survey saying 84 percent of New York City fast food workers reported that their employer had engaged in some form of wage theft in the last year.
These are calculated criminal acts. An employer who knowingly violates labor laws is no different than a pickpocket or bank robber. Lock ‘em up!
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