Wage Theft Op-ed

Melvina Ford, Executive Director of EJC

As one Employment Justice Center client put it, “Not being paid is life changing.” It can lead to the loss of housing, cause a family to go hungry or force someone to seek public assistance just to survive. Moreover, wage theft is a crime. It is the illegal practice of not paying a worker for all of their time worked.

In Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers (September 2009), the National Employment Law Project (NELP) “expose[d] a world of work in which the core protections that many Americans take for granted – the right to be paid at least the minimum wage, the right to be paid for overtime hours, the right to take meal breaks” do not exist. The report details the results of a landmark survey of over 4,000 workers in low-wage industries, finding that more than two-thirds had not been paid properly within the previous work week. The average worker lost $51, out of average weekly earnings of $339.

Wage theft is growing rampantly nationwide, in part because of a lack of adequate enforcement of existing laws. Even though the labor force grew by 52% between 1980 and 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor lost 31% of its federal wage theft inspectors. As a result, as reported by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of investigations dropped from 47,000 in 1997 to 30,000 in 2008. The Government Accountability Office also found that the complaints investigated during that time period were systematically mishandled. See Fair Labor Standards Act, Better Use of Available Resources and Consistent Reporting Could Improve Compliance, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (2008); Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s Complaint Intake and Investigative Processes Leave Low Wage Workers Vulnerable to Wage Theft, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (2009).

Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor added over 200 inspectors and began correcting many of the problems identified by U.S. Government Accountability Office, but as many state and local governments slash budgets for wage enforcement, changes at the national level may be effectively rendered moot. For example, the D.C. Office of Wage and Hour has seen its staff shrink from 25 in 1971 to less than 8 in recent years, and for fiscal year 2010, the Wage and Hour office budget was further slashed by 36%.

The EJC sees the impact of this lack of enforcement first hand every week at our Workers’ Rights Clinic — a walk-in legal clinic for workers with employment law problems. In 2009, 27% of workers we assisted had a wage theft issue. In the 3rd quarter of 2010, that percentage jumped to 34%.

Wage theft doesn’t just hurt workers; the reduced payroll hurts us all. The government collects less in taxes, and as tax revenue declines, lawmakers are forced to cut spending on the public goods and services we all use. Moreover, law-abiding employers are unfairly disadvantaged by businesses that compete by cheating their workers out of pay.

Thursday, November 18, 2010, is the National Day of Action for Wage Theft. Those who believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work will join forces around the country to call attention to the problem of wage theft and to encourage government officials and the community to strengthen laws against wage theft, punish employers who flagrantly violate current wage theft laws, and shine a positive light on employers who pay their employees properly.

Melvina C. Ford

November 18, 2010