Friday, November 19, 2010

The Cold Winds of Wage Theft Rip $2,600 a Year Out of Workers' Pockets

    Sometimes drama helps us understand real life better. 

   Yesterday, about 35 WIN members gathered together on the very chilly plaza in front of the federal building as part of a national day of action against wage theft. In a short skit, 3 workers and 3 employers played out what is a typical pay day for low-wage workers, according to a study from the National Employment Law Project

   One worker got her pay and it was correct. The other two told their employers their pay was wrong - one was paid below minimum wage, and the other didn't get his overtime pay. When the employers told them it wasn't that much money, the employers began to unwind a string of 130 $20 bills from the workers' waists. (See this picture from The Commercial Appeal to get an idea). That's the amount - $2,600 - the average low-wage worker who experiences wage theft loses each year.

   You wouldn't believe how quickly that money unwound in the cold wind - or how long it stretched across the plaza. It was a good metaphor for how wage theft feels to workers, I think. All too quickly, money they were counting on for basic necessities is snatched out of their hands.  

 In this coverage of the press conference by WKNO FM, you can hear worker Zorina Bowen describe how she felt after experiencing wage theft at Safari World Tapas Restaurant.

   We had several messages at our press conference yesterday:

1) We urged workers to come out of the shadows and report the wage theft that is happening to them. The Shelby County District Attorney has pledged that they will begin investigating some cases of wage theft. They'll look into situations where workers haven't been paid at all, or where they haven't got a final paycheck, as criminal offenses. WIN can help you approach the DA's office about investigating your case, if you'll let us know you have a problem.

2) Wage theft isn't being caused by just a few bad employers. The National Employment Law Project report finds that 2 out of 3 low-wage workers experienced a wage violation in the past work week. Breaking wage laws has become so easy that many employers use it as part of their business model. And they won't stop doing it until there are more meaningful consequences for stealing from your workers.

3) Congress must do more to stop wage theft by passing new laws. We talked about 3 pieces of key legislation that we need Rep. Steve Cohen - and other Mid-South members of Congress to co-sponsor. The first - the Wage Theft Prevention and Community Partnerships Act - creates a grants program so that community groups can formally partner with the Department of Labor to educate workers and employers about wage laws. It's the kind of "community policing" approach that's needed if we're going to reach vulnerable workers who don't know what to do when their wages are stolen. 

   The second bill, also called the Wage Theft Prevention Act, gives the Department of Labor more time to investigate workers' complaints when they file a wage theft claim. Right now, if you're a worker and you file a wage theft claim a year after it happens, the Department of Labor only has a year to investigate and resolve your case. You would think that would be long enough, but the DOL is so overwhelmed with cases, sometimes it's not.

   The last bill, The Fair Playing Field Act, addresses the all too common problem of misclassification of construction workers. This happens when a contractor tells a worker they're an independent contractor, not an employee. 

   Why does it matter? 

   Because an independent contractor has to pay all his own Social Security and Medicare taxes. He won't be covered by the main contractor's workers compensation if he gets hurt, and no one is paying unemployment taxes for him. It's a bad deal for workers - and for governments who don't get the tax revenues they're supposed to. It's also bad news for construction companies that do follow the rules. The Fair Playing Field Act closes tax loopholes that make it easier to misclassify workers. It already has 122 co-sponsors - we need Rep. Cohen and other Mid-Southerners to join that list.

   Seeing so many people take action against wage theft across the country yesterday was exciting. Take a look at how a rally in Chicago yesterday helped a car wash worker get part of his stolen wages back, for example. 

   Thanks to everyone who took action! Even though the day of action is over, it's not too late to make the call to your member of Congress about wage theft legislation.

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