Monday, July 27, 2009

Wage theft robs workers of normal life

Wage theft happens with alarming frequency in Shelby County and throughout the nation. Workers Interfaith Network (WIN) gets new calls each week from workers who were cheated by their employers. Some are getting paid below the minimum wage, some never see overtime show up on their paychecks, while others just don't get paid at all.

A common theme in these cases is that workers have been robbed not only of their wages, but also of the ability to lead a normal life. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling has written that being paid less than a living wage is "also a theft of [workers'] dignity, [because] their hard work is not good enough to support themselves." This is even more true of wage theft.

Take the example of Sharon, a daycare worker who contacted WIN in May because her employer, New Horizon Children's Academy, has not paid her her final paycheck. Sharon took the job there for $6.55 an hour after leaving a situation of domestic violence, determined to build a new life for herself and her two children. But she soon found her employer didn't keep a regular paydate, and she often had to wait days to get her pay. Fed up, she quit her job, and she has still not been paid $373 for her last week of work. $373 may not sound like a lot to you, but to a worker like Sharon, that's money for her basic necessities she doesn't have.

WIN tries to always offer employers like New Horizons the high road first. We contacted the owner, explaining the federal and state laws they had broken, and offering to negotiate a payment plan to restore Sharon's wages to her. Because they have failed to respond to negotiation attempts, WIN will be holding a prayer vigil outside New Horizons (514 N. Manassas) on Thursday, August 6th at 9:00 a.m. Please come out and support Sharon in her struggle for justice.

Workers' Centers like WIN's are fighting wage theft all across the country, primarily using community pressure and worker organizing to win back wages. For example, take a look at this video series on the wage theft work of Arise Chicago.

But to make a real dent in wage theft, government agencies have to do their jobs too. That's why worker rights organizations across the country, including WIN and our national organization, Interfaith Worker Justice, are pushing Congress for reforms in the Department of Labor. Last week, an important first step happened when Rep. George Miller introduced legislation that freezes the statue of limitations on wage theft complaints once workers complain to a government agency about not being paid. The legislation came about after the Government Accountability Office report found that the Department of Labor often failed to investigate wage theft cases in a timely manner, especially when employers deliberately dragged their feet so that the statue of limitations would be reached.

More is needed - there should be tougher penalties against employers who are repeat offenders. Workers need to be provided pay stubs so they can see if they've been paid for all their hours. And workers need to be protected from retaliation by their employers if they go public with their situation of wage theft. For those things to happen, workers and their allies will have to push for them. That's what WIN is here for - please join us in the fight.