Fighting Wage Theft

Monday brought the announcement of a record 70,000-plus jobs lost worldwide, from drug companies to automakers and everything in between.

Meanwhile each year millions of Americans who still have jobs are having their wages stolen from them, an under-recognized epidemic known as “wage theft” which forces people to work longer hours or extra jobs to compensate and deprives local economies of funds that could be circulating. Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago and a passionate long-time labor organizer, calls it “the crime wave no one talks about” in her new book Wage Theft in America

There are numerous ways employers intentionally, unintentionally and indirectly steal wages from workers, Bobo explains, and often those workers don’t know what their rights are or where to turn for help. About three million Americans per year are not paid what they are owed for their work.

The most vulnerable tend to be undocumented immigrants and day laborers who are hired informally for construction, clean-up, landscaping and temp jobs and not paid what they are promised or sometimes not paid at all. They are frequently stranded in an unfamiliar location, forced to find their own way home, to add insult to injury. Such situations were particularly common on the Gulf Coast in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, as Latino immigrant workers in search of jobs and even U.S. citizens streamed there for work. Bobo tells the heart-breaking story of an African American worker who traveled to New Orleans hoping to be part of a historical rebuilding effort, and ended up swindled out of wages and left hungry and destitute.

Major corporations led by Wal-Mart have also been found guilty by the U.S. Department of Labor of wage theft (officially classified usually as wage and hour violations) and forced to pay billion dollar-plus settlements. In such situations, top management often puts so much pressure on regional or local managers to cut costs that they tacitly push for or approve of wage theft, often in the form of not paying overtime or counting opening and closing or clean-up time off the clock. In the poultry industry, among other sectors, workers are regularly not paid for the “donning and doffing” time it takes them to put on and take off clothing and safety gear.

Even “professional” workers are often victims of wage theft thanks to misclassification, where an employer designates them an independent contractor exempt from overtime pay and benefits when in reality they have the right to those things. Nurses, writers and even financial analysts and stockbrokers often fall into this category. In addition to the three million Americans per year suffering outright wage theft, Bobo says, another three million have wages stolen through misclassification.

It is generally the Department of Labor’s responsibility to investigate and remedy wage and hour violations, and as with Wal-Mart the department often does mandate significant settlements. But the department can be slow, bureaucratic and at least under the Bush administration, known to generally favor employers. Bobo advocates a mix of reforming the Department of Labor — a likely possibility under Obama and proposed labor secretary Hilda Solis — and direct public and advocacy involvement through unions, workers centers and solidarity campaigns.

I asked Bobo for advice or a summary of how people can combat wage theft, both when they or their friends are victims and on a systematic level. She said the issue is too huge to sum up briefly — in fact the answer fills a whole book. And it is a good one, packed with information, practical advice, analysis, history and human stories.

Kari Lydersen is a staff writer out of The Washington Post midwest bureau and also freelances for publications including The Chicago Reporter and The Progressive. She is the author of three books, including “Revolt on Goose Island” (Melville House Press) released in June 2009. She also teaches Community News at Columbia College and teaches youth journalism in a non-profit program.


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