Stolen Wages

Pay Violations Rampant in Low-Wage Industries Despite Enforcement Efforts

A warehouse workers protest in Illinois. Photo: Peoplesworld/Flickr

For workers stuck on the bottom rung, living on poverty wages is hard enough. But many also are victims of wage theft, a catch-all term for payroll abuses that cheat workers of income they are supposedly guaranteed by law.

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Over the last few years employers ranging from baseball’s San Francisco Giants to Subway franchises to Farmer’s Insurance have been cited for wage violations. More often, though, wage abuses are not reported by victims or punished by authorities despite being routine in some low-wage industries.

“If you steal from your employer, you’re going to be hauled out of the workplace in handcuffs,” said Kim Bobo, a Chicago workers rights advocate and author. “But if your employer steals from you, you’ll be lucky to get your money back.

Victims typically are low wage, low-skilled workers desperate to hang on to their jobs. Frequently, they are immigrants—the most vulnerable and least apt to speak up. “They know that if they complain, there’s always someone else out there who is willing to take their job,” said Maria Echaveste, a former labor official during the Clinton administration who is now at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

While heart-breaking for employees, wage theft also robs federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars in taxes, and puts employers who play by the rules at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Document: Brennan Center Review of Wage Theft Literature

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Document: Dathan Williams Charging Information, King Co. Superior Court, Oct. 2013

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Document: Why Complain? Complaints, Compliance and the Problem of Enforcement in the U.S. Workplace, Weil & Pyles, 2005

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Document: Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, NELP, 2009

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