I will admit that until very recently, I’d never heard the term “wage theft,” but it’s a term that I’ve come across fairly frequently in the context of the current debate over raising the minimum wage, so I consulted Dr. Google.
Basically, “wage theft” applies to situations where an employer doesn’t follow applicable wage and/or hour laws–either paying an employee for less time than s/he worked, or at a rate below the legal minimum.
A landmark survey survey of thousands of low-wage workers in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago found that 26 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage the week before they were interviewed. According to the 2009 report by the National Employment Law Project and two other groups, 76 percent of the workers who put in more than 40 hours did not get paid or were underpaid the required time-and-a-half overtime rate. About 17 percent of the workers put in unpaid time “off the clock” before or after their shifts, another violation. In the three cities alone, the study estimated, low-paid workers were losing more than $56.4 million per week to wage theft.
As one reporter noted, the central problem in enforcing wage and hour laws is that they are basically driven by the filing of a complaint, and most people earning less than minimum wage are understandably unwilling to risk their jobs by complaining, even assuming they know they have that right.
The impact of even a little “skimming” by employers can be significant.
The Economic Policy Institute calculates: “When a worker earns only a minimum wage ($290 for a 40-hour week), shaving a mere half hour a day from the paycheck means a loss of more than $1,400 a year, including overtime premiums. That could be nearly 10 percent of a minimum-wage employee’s annual earnings—the difference between paying the rent and utilities or risking eviction and the loss of gas, water, or electric service.” Overall, according to projections based on surveys of low-wage workers, “wage theft is costing workers more than $50 billion a year.”
In our downsized, privatized, anti-government environment, I guess having adequate personnel to enforce wage laws is just too much to expect.