The arrangement between employers and employees should be fundamentally simple. You provide a share of your time and energy to work for them, and the employer compensates you fairly for it. However, even by this most basic concept of employment, many employers don’t play fair. When they don’t, they are guilty of wage theft, and must be held accountable.
What is Wage Theft?
Wage Theft is a class of ways that employers can keep money that rightfully should go to their employees. The Economic Policy Institute has a convenient article explaining it in depth. Some forms of wage theft include:
- Paying a rate lower than minimum wage or failing to compensate tipped employees for pay below minimum wage
- Failing to pay employees overtime wages
- Asking for unpaid work before or after shifts
- Failing to provide legally-mandated breaks
- Holding back earned pay or taking employee tips
- Incorrectly registering employees as independent contractors to avoid legal requirements
According to the EPI, not only does wage theft happen, but it happens a lot, and disproportionately happens to lower-income workers.
A Massive Problem
In 2015 and 2016, $2 billion in stolen wages were recovered through government actions or lawsuits, and this is believed to be only a fraction of the wages actually stolen. The estimate given by the EPI is that an average of $50 billion is stolen from workers by their employers every year, among low-wage workers. The report cites another study, performed on the ten most populated states, that estimates up to $15 billion per year is stolen from employees just by employers paying less than minimum wage – for comparison, the FBI estimates that the total value of all robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts per year nationwide is $12.7 billion.
Individually, this can severely hurt an employee. On average, the worker suffering wage theft loses $64 per week, which works out to $3,300 per year. This illegal reduction most commonly hits demographics who are already more vulnerable, according to EPI, such as “people of color, women, immigrants, young people, workers from modest-income households, nonunionized workers, and workers who do not have a bachelor’s degree.” And enforcement is limited, first by the rarity of reported wage theft, then by restricted powers and inadequate personnel to investigate individual cases.
What Can I Do?
There are things the government could do to combat wage theft, such as tightening restrictions on it and improving enforcement methods. Laws could provide greater protections for workers who report violations or seek collective action. Petitioning elected officials is always an option in getting the ball started on methods available to the government.
If you are a victim of wage theft, you should immediately contact a lawyer who understands the responsibility your employer has for you and how to hold them accountable. Contact us today and let us explore your options together.