A university survey of 4,387 low-wage workers showed that over two-thirds were cheated on their last week’s pay. They were cheated, on average, $51 out of their pay of $339. Thefts included paying less than minimum wage, “working off the clock” and no extra pay for overtime.

Released Sept. 2, the study was titled, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers.” It blew away the false idea that only a few “rogue” employers steal workers wages.

Kim Bobo, author of “Wage Theft in America” puts the sum of stolen wages at $19 billion annually. (See book review on page 7.)

Perhaps the most shocking part was the failure to pay workmen’s compensation. Only 8 percent of those seriously injured on the job collected compensation to pay for medical care and lost time from work.

Unfortunately, wage theft is not new in our country. Now, we face a wage theft crime wave that has reached epidemic proportions.

The Department of Labor is entrusted with enforcing wage and hour laws. During the long years of anti-labor presidents, from Reagan to Bush I and Bush II, anti-labor secretaries headed the department. The laws were further weakened. There is no punishment whatsoever. At most, the employer-robber might have to pay back the stolen wages. The fines are laughably small and do not include jail time.

It also hurts the economy by reducing working families’ buying power.

How can we end wage theft? One answer is to strengthen the Labor Department’s enforcement of wage-hour laws. The election of President Obama has made a huge difference. He appointed Hilda Solis to head the department and earmarked $30 million in his budget to hire an additional 288 “front line” wage inspectors.

“After the last 8 years, where inspectors all but disappeared at the federal level, we definitely welcome appropriating more money,” said Erik Nicholson of the United Farmworkers of America to reporters. “We called those the dark ages – pretty much dead for eight years in terms of enforcement.”

Still, as Bobo points out, the worker’s best line of defense against wage theft is a union. With a union, workers can stop wage theft and bring up the minimum wage. They need the Employee Free Choice Act passed soon.

 

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