SAN FRANCISCO - "Wage theft" may not yet be a household word, but it's a constant, dismal reality for millions across the U.S. And Interfaith Worker Justice is determined to do something about it.
On Nov. 19, IWJ, which unites clergy and lay people from many faiths to fight for social justice, initiated the first-ever National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft. Actions brought together low-wage workers, union and community supporters and people from many faiths, in some 40 cities around the country.
The depth of the problem was revealed in a survey of 4,387 low-wage workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, released just before Labor Day. Researchers found the workers were often paid less than minimum wage, were denied proper overtime pay and suffered meal break and other violations. These losses were not trivial: the study found the average low-wage worker lost over $2,600, or over one-sixth of his or her annual earnings.
In San Francisco a crowd assembled on the steps of City Hall to hear speakers from Young Workers United, the Chinese Progressive Association, Pride at Work, La Raza Centro Legal and others describe an "epidemic" of wage theft affecting workers in restaurants, on farms, in health care and other service jobs.
The case of NBC Contractors got special attention. NBC's owner, Monica Ung, faces 48 felony counts involving wage theft, insurance fraud and perjury for cheating largely immigrant construction workers out of an estimated $10 million, forcing them to work 60 to 72 hours a week but paying them only for 10 to 40 hours.
In Chicago, three Polish construction workers campaigning with help from the Arise Chicago Worker Center to recover over $70,000 in stolen wages rallied outside a location where their former employer holds a contract. They were joined by seminarians from McCormick Theological Seminary, members of the roofers and pipefitters unions, representatives of the University of Illinois Center for Urban Economic development and the Restaurant Opportunities Center Chicago, as well as members of the Polish community and IWJ staff.
In Memphis, the Workers Interfaith Network released a survey of 141 local low-wage workers, nearly two-thirds of whom reported being cheated out of wages, including not receiving a final paycheck, being paid less than minimum wage or having tips stolen. The Commercial Appeal reported a community meeting earlier this month, where workers in the construction and restaurant industries told their wage theft stories.
In a telephone interview, IWJ's director of public policy, Ted Smukler, said the organization is in the midst of a national anti-wage-theft campaign, one goal of which is "to make ‘wage theft' a household word, to stigmatize it, like ‘weapons of mass destruction,' or ‘global warming.'"
People hearing the term for the first time may not realize what wage theft is, he said, "but when it's explained to them, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, that happened to me,' or ‘I know someone that happened to.'"
Another facet of the campaign, at the national level, is to reform the Department of Labor and to pass legislation to strengthen enforcement and support community-based efforts against wage theft. "We are very happy that Hilda Solis is now Secretary of Labor and there are some good appointments at the top," Smukler said, but it will take time to restore to full function a department in decline since the 1970s and virtually stripped of investigative capacity during the Bush years.
A key plank in IWJ's campaign is passage of HR 3303, the Wage Theft Prevention Act, by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. The bill would fix the present statute of limitation which gives the department two years to resolve a case. IWJ is also working to generate congressional pressure for more studies by the General Accounting Office, like the 2008 study in which, Smukler said, the department "completely botched" 14 out of a series of 15 fictitious complaints.
The department urgently needs more investigators. Smukler said. At the end of 2008, one investigator was available for every 173,000 workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, and even with the recent addition of 250 new investigators nationwide, "it's impossible for them to be proactive."
"We want to make clear that it's not just affecting low-wage workers, immigrant workers, though they are particularly vulnerable," Smukler said. "It affects Black workers, white workers, native-born workers, immigrants with status - it's affecting everybody."
Individuals can also take steps to make sure they aren't participating in wage theft, he said, including leaving tips in cash, checking how home repair and landscaping workers are being paid, and becoming involved with IWJ's network of 25 workers' centers around the country.
Web sites about wage theft and IWJ's campaign include www.iwj.org, www.wagetheft.org, and www.canmybossdothat.com.
Photo: PW/Marilyn Bechtel