A hundred years ago, labor leaders fought for all the protections we know and rely on today in the workplace – safe conditions, the 8-hour workday, overtime pay and the ban on children in factories. These are rules so obvious today that is seems fantastical that people once had to march in the streets to get them. Yet, today, something even more fundamental is under attack. Workers are seeing their wages stolen by their bosses, with little recourse to do anything about it.
Over two-thirds of workers experienced wage theft each week in major US cities. Employers alter timecards, violate break periods, fail to pay overtime rates or simply fail to pay their employees at all. It’s bad enough that wages for the bottom 99% of workers have stagnated since the Great Recession, but then to add the indignity of robbing them as well?
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In fact, wage theft is so prevalent that it’s one of the worst crime sprees in recent memory. For comparison, in 2012, total wage theft in the United States far exceeded the total amount stolen in all bank, gas station and convenience store robberies.
If wage theft had a capital, it would be Los Angeles, where $26.2 million is stolen from workers each week. That’s nearly $1.4 billion every year. You’d think with that level of crime, the SWAT team would be called in to take out the evildoers. Instead, a weak regulatory structure combined with poor enforcement allows many of these employers to go free. They’re also gaining an unfair advantage against those businesses that are doing the right thing.
There is a process for getting your wages back, but it’s long, complicated and outside of the courts, where defendants would have access to a court appointed lawyer. (It’s hard to hire legal help when your employer’s been stealing from your paycheck every week.) Not surprisingly, these hearings rarely result in victories. And when they do, workers find it very difficult to get the money they’ve been awarded – 83 percent don’t ever see a dime.
An employee who is caught skimming from the register gets arrested, or at the very least, fired. But when employers feel free to skim from their workers’ paychecks, it becomes blatantly obvious that only some crimes, committed by some people, are ever punished.
Now, as they did a century ago, workers are fighting back. In Los Angeles, a coalition made up of Brave New Films, UCLA Labor Center and labor organizations representing restaurant, garment, car wash and other workers have been pushing the City Council to support a new anti-wage theft ordinance. On June 24, they took to the steps of City Hall along with Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Gil Cedillo to demand the council take action.
If scofflaw employers can be regulated in the wage theft capital of the United States, then maybe we can restore the dignity of fair pay for honest work in all US cities.