A new report shows how wage theft reaches deep into the low-wage economy.
“The Movement to End Wage Theft” illustrates the problem with the stories of workers employed by a grocery chain, a temp agency, a construction company and other incorporated businesses. These workers’ wages were stolen by their employers who failed to pay the minimum wage or overtime, or refused to abide by work-break and safety rules.
Findings from a 2009 study cited by the study’s author, Nik Theodore of the University of Illinois at Chicago, concluded that 26 percent of low-wage workers in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles were paid less than the legal minimum wage, and 76 percent of workers who worked overtime were not paid the legally required overtime rate.
Here’s one account from the report (available here in PDF format):
For six years Modesta has worked as a cashier in a retail store in Brooklyn, New York. When she started at the job she was paid $5 an hour. She worked 60 hours, 6 days a week, but received no overtime pay. Last year she was given a “raise” and now earns $6.60 an hour—still well below the state minimum wage. Most of her co-workers are paid even less, but she says her employer has been able to continue this practice because the workers are too scared to complain.
Yet workers are fighting back, Theodore reports, through worker-led efforts based in community groups and as part of worker alliances in cities throughout the country:
Many have entered into national alliances with other like-minded organizations, such as Interfaith Worker Justice, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, National People’s Action, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Jobs with Justice. They have forged strong working relationships with labor unions, immigrant rights coalitions, faith-based groups, community organizations, policy think tanks and, to a lesser extent, government enforcement agencies. Through these efforts, workers’ rights organizations have extended their reach; scaled up their efforts; and won significant organizing, legal and legislative victories.
The most successful of these efforts, according to David Weil, professor of economics at Boston University, who is quoted in the report, do more than recover stolen wages: They seek to bring an end to the underhanded tactics used by employers to coerce workers into exploitive employment conditions in the first place. (Weil took part yesterday in a panel discussion at the AFL-CIO headquarters on the “The Future of Work.”)
For example, the report cites the work done by the Washington State-based community organization, Casa Latina, which started its efforts against wage theft on behalf of day-laborers in the construction industry:
As workers in other industries began to report similar violations, Casa Latina extended its approach, developing strategies to prevent wage theft. This change involved expanding its day labor hiring program, which raises the wage floor and monitors employer practices (the hiring hall dispatched workers for 3,973 jobs in 2009), and founding a domestic worker training and job-placement program, in which 564 jobs were filled. Casa Latina also deepened its partnerships with labor unions, joining the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, to press more effectively for government action in defense of workers’ rights.
A particularly poignant story Theodore relates in “The Movement to End Wage Theft” is that of the Workers Defense Project in Austin, Texas, where a building contractor fled the state after three workers fell to their deaths because of unsafe practices on the construction site. The flight of the contractor left dozens of workers holding the bag for unpaid wages.
Workers Defense Project filed a lien against the property, and turned to public demonstrations as a way to highlight construction safety issues and to attempt to recover the stolen wages. Approximately $10,000 was recovered in partial unpaid wages for the surviving workers. Workers Defense Project has followed up with a $150,000 class-action lawsuit against the employer, seeking to fully recover wages for workers employed at this project site and another where the employer had also been under contract.