4:16 PM, Apr. 1, 2011 | Source: DesMoinesRegister.com

Few crimes are more contemptible than wage theft.

When an employer stiffs a worker of promised wages, the employer is not just stealing money from the worker. The employer has stolen hours of someone else’s life.

It is all the more despicable because victims tend to be poor and powerless. They are often day laborers, young people or immigrants who have no means of forcing employers to pay what they promised.

Imagine yourself at the bottom rungs of the labor ladder. You jump at the chance for a few days’ work that might at least pay the rent, but at the end of the week there is no pay. The wages you have been promised are refused, or the check you have been given bounces.

You have no leverage to force the employer to pay. You might complain to the state Labor Department, but it’s your word against the employer’s. Besides, the one investigator assigned to wage theft has a huge backlog of cases. It will be months before you see any redress, if ever. In the meantime, the rent is still unpaid and the children still need to eat.

Of all the crimes perpetrated against the poor, wage theft is among the most cruel.

The activist group Citizens for Community Improvement has shown a spotlight on wage theft in Iowa, uncovering what is either an alarming increase in wage theft or an increase in reporting of the crime. Either way, it is unacceptable.

Wage theft is a crime that simply should not exist. No one in Iowa should be able to get away with stealing another person’s labor.

The Iowa Senate passed a bill intended to make it easier prove the case when workers have been cheated, but the bill appears doomed in the House. The legislation would require employers to maintain documentation of people they hire and wages promised. It would also prohibit reprisals against whistle blowers who support the claims of the cheated workers.

Leaders in the House of Representatives have taken the position that the legislation would impose too much paperwork on good employers in order to catch a few bad ones.

That’s no surprise. The business-friendly House naturally is more solicitous of employers than it is of impoverished workers.

Fine. In an atmosphere where the lawmakers are falling all over themselves to do anything the business lobby wants, it is too much to expect that a new paperwork burden would be imposed on business.

But those who object to the paperwork burden should feel an obligation to come up with other ways for desperate workers to recover wages owed them. If they don’t like paperwork, then what other way of stopping wage theft do they propose?

At the least, the state should allocate sufficient resources so that every wage complaint can be promptly investigated. Perhaps, too, the penalty for wage theft, a $500 fine, should be increased by an order of magnitude.

The state should make it unmistakably clear that any employer who intentionally cheats workers forfeits the right to run a business in Iowa. Perhaps, since they have stolen someone else’s time, they should serve time themselves, in jail.

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