Concern grows over wage theft from low-income workers

WASHINGTON – Wage theft is one of the biggest problems facing low-wage workers as well as American taxpayers, said the leader of Interfaith Worker Justice.

Kim Bobo, on a Nov. 17 conference call with reporters, said a study of 4,600 low-wage workers showed they each lose on average $2,600 a year, that 25 percent of low-wage workers make less than the minimum wage, and that 75 percent of workers toiling more than 40 hours a week do not get the overtime pay to which they are entitled.

“Millions are misclassified (by employers) as ‘independent contractors,’ stealing both from workers and the public,” Bobo said, allowing employers to skip out on paying Social Security and payroll taxes and not contribute to any medical or pension benefits frequently given rightfully classified employees.

A “day of action” on wage theft spurred events in more than 50 cities. A mayoral task force on wage theft was unveiled in Grand Rapids, Mich.; “justice buses” in Houston took workers to the homes of employers accused of wage theft, and activists marched outside police headquarters in Washington urging investigation and prosecution of suspected cheating employers.

Network, a Catholic social justice lobby group, and the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd were among the organizations endorsing the Day of Action Against Wage Theft Nov. 17. Others included Sojourners, three Jewish groups and one Muslim organization.

Methodist Deacon Daniel Klawitter, religious outreach organizer for the Denver-based FRESC: Good Jobs, Strong Communities, quoted during the conference call from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy in calling for an end to wage theft: “You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset. … otherwise they may cry out to the Lord against you, and you may incur guilt.”

Bernie Evans, a Catholic who is the organizing director for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers union, said the “vast majority” of workers victimized by wage theft are “immigrants. This makes them a target for exploitation.”

Workers in the iron industry, according to Evans, “tell us they’re not being paid their individually negotiated wage – meaning they’re not being paid the wages they agreed to when being hired.” Workers are sometimes told to go to different states, “but not given any money or the expenses for traveling,” he added.

“Sometimes workers are paid cash, but the amount is less than it should be. When they are paid by check, they do not receive the proper pay stubs. These workers suffer abuse and work under very difficult conditions,” Evans said. “Even (the availability of) drinking water is an issue.”

These practices occurred “even on federally funded construction projects,” Evans said, leading to the question of “how much taxpayer money it (employer who keeps workers’ wages) receives by building highways, roads, bridges.”

Rebecca Fuentes of the Worker Center of Central New York was tipped off over the Labor Day weekend to the plight of some legally documented Mexican immigrant workers at the New York State Fair in Syracuse.

She met one who had to go to the hospital. “He had blisters on his hands and his legs from working in unsafe conditions,” she said. Workers for one vendor at the fair, according to Fuentes, “were being forced to work 17 hours a day. They were housed in two trailers, housing a total of 19 men.”

Fuentes said that “many promises and the terms of their contract had been broken. They were deprived of food and breaks” and were being paid between $2-$3 an hour.

“They were confronted with terrible choices. Do they spend their money on food and other essentials, or send money to Mexico where their families are desperate?” Fuentes said. “No worker should be treated this way, ever. A fair is an opportunity for celebration. This was a place of despair.”

Besides the justice aspects of the issue, making good on the wages owed workers makes sense for a shaky economy, Bobo said.

“What better way to stimulate the economy, and put money back into neighborhood businesses, than to actually give workers the wages due them?” she said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.