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Employer Wage Theft Common for Low-Wage Workers

Jeremy Sprinkle
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(Picture) Employee Free Choice ActMinimum Wage, Workers' Comp, Overtime laws violated routinely

This may come as little surprise to our readers, members, and activists in the labor movement. A new study, "Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers," reveals that employers regularly violate wage and hour laws for their low-wage employees. Workers who can least afford it are the most likely to report having been short-changed in pay by their employers.

From the NY Times article on the study results:

In surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.

Not only are employers stealing their employee's wages, they're also quite successful in deterring low-wage workers who are seriously injured on the job from filing for workers' compensation to pay for their medical care and lost-time. The study found only 8 percent of these workers filed for comp:

"The conventional wisdom has been that to the extent there were violations, it was confined to a few rogue employers or to especially disadvantaged workers, like undocumented immigrants," said Nik Theodore, an author of the study and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. "What our study shows is that this is a widespread phenomenon across the low-wage labor market in the United States."

The Times reports that's not all the study revealed:

The report found that 57 percent of workers sampled had not received mandatory pay documents the previous week, which are intended to help make sure pay is legal and accurate. Of workers who receive tips, 12 percent said their employer had stolen some of the tips.

What happens to low-wage workers who try to do something about their employer's illegal behavior? The workers get hit again:

One in five workers reported having lodged a complaint about wages to their employer or trying to form a union in the previous year, and 43 percent of them said they had experienced some form of illegal retaliation, like firing or suspension, the study said.

The Employee Free Choice Act would empower low-wage workers

Employers violate wage and hour, workers' comp, and other labor laws with impunity because for them it's just the cost of doing business. As this study shows, low-wage workers are especially at risk from this illegal behavior, losing on average 15 percent of their pay to employer wage theft.

When workers stand up for their rights on the job, they're standing up for their coworkers, their families, and their communities, too. No worker should face retaliation because they dared to speak out when their employer is breaking the law. Forming a union at work is the best way to gain protection on the job and a voice at work.

The Employee Free Choice Act would level the playing field for workers who want to form a union to stop the illegal, abusive employer practices laid bare by this study. Specifically, the bill would:

  1. Allow workers to form a union when a simple majority or more show that they want a union.
  2. Provide for mediation and arbitration on first contract disputes.
  3. Greatly increase fines and penalties for employers who violate labor laws.