Monday, January 18, 2010

Wage Theft Should Be A Crime

“You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” Deuteronomy 24:14 A worker I interviewed, whom we’ll call Victoria, took a job at a Fayetteville restaurant for $50 a day. She worked 10 to 10, six days a week. That comes to $4.16 an hour. Arkansas’ minimum wage is $6.25, plus time-and-a-half for work over 40 hours per week.

Victoria’s terms of employment were illegal. Had she been paid a legal minimum wage, she would have earned $300 more per week.

If only she had been paid.

Victoria was supposed to be paid every two weeks. But it was nearly a month before she got her first check. When she got her second check a week into her second month of work, her employer told her not to cash it for a week.

By that time she had additional responsibilities. She was the primary cook, preparing most of the orders and doing the dishwashing as well. She was coming in earlier and staying an hour later. Same $50 a day.

One day a couple of weeks later, Victoria suffered a pretty serious cut to her finger. It became infected overnight. She was treated and told to cover the finger for three days.

The doctor said she could return to work, taking some precautions to protect the injury. When she went back the next day, the owner fired her. The owner paid her half of what she was owed, with a hot check.

That hot check was Victoria’s good luck. You see, it is a Class Cfelony to pass a hot check of $500 or more - that’s a serious crime; same category as manslaughter.

Victoria went to the Workers Justice Center who contacted the county prosecuting attorney.

The prosecutor forced the former employer to make good on the hot check.

There are only civil penalties when an employer to underpays a worker, or hires people below the legal minimum wage, or refuses to pay for work an employee has done. There are legal sanctions.

Unlike the prosecutor’s office, these wheels move slowly. It takes time. And if the worker wins, the employer usually suffers just a slap on the wrist. But in truth, it is theft. Wage theft.

Maybe you think this is an unusual case, an exception to the rule. Not so. A landmark study published in fall surveyed more than 4,000 low-wage workers and found that nearly 70 percent of the workers had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week.

That’s shocking. (“Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” at http:// sdm6bc50n.pdf)

These violations were widespread, not just rogue employers victimizing undocumented immigrants.

The typical worker lost $51 the previous week out of average weekly earnings of $339. That’s a 15 percent pay loss. Nearly 60 percent of the workerssampled did not receive mandatory pay documents that help insure pay is legal and accurate. Of those who worked overtime, 75 percent were not paid the legal amount and 70 percent of those who came in early or stayed late for their shift were not paid for their extra work.

The good news: Generally the employers that treated people well overall - offering health insurance, vacations, and paid sick days - had lower violation rates. High rates of cheating: Child care workers, personal and repair services, restaurants, textile manufacturing, private households, drug and grocery stores, retail, building and grounds workers, various manufacturing low-wage jobs.

Women, black and Latin workers got the worst of it.

Last week I heard from a parishioner who was faced with the choice between food and blood pressure medications because a contractor didn’t pay her husband $750 for his construction work. He’s white, male and native born.

I asked Fernando Garcia of the Workers Justice Center what would most help. He said, “Make wage theft a crime, like hot checks.” Then workers would have some clout behind them.

Not paying a worker a legal wage is theft - wage theft. It’s a crime to steal property. Why isn’t it a crime to steal someone’s blood, sweat and tears?

By Lowell Grisham

Monday, January 18, 2010


Northwest Arkansas Times
, Page 5 on 01/18/2010

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