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Wage Theft Epidemic: Bosses Pocket 15 Percent of Workers' Pay

There has been a 400-percent increase in wage-and-hour violation claims over the last 11 years -- and that just scratches the surface of unreported wage thefts.

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“Of course the law is good, but it’s limited as an actual anti-wage theft strategy,” Kader says, explaining that Arise relies on blunt confrontations with thieving employers using pickets, leafleting, religious delegations, and phone calls and letters to business clients and associates. “You need different kinds of community pressure to win those complaints, those lawsuits, so why not start with community pressure. Our most heavy emphasis is still on developing and perfecting our direct-action strategies.”

In Florida’s Miami-Dade county, home of a potent local anti-wage theft ordinance, worker advocacy organizations use similar tactics to publicize the cases brought before the county (which enforces the law in the absence of a state Department of Labor, which legislators eliminated in 2002).

Under the Miami-Dade ordinance, workers register a complaint with the county which checks out their claim, and if it is valid, calls the employer to notify them of the charge. If the offender proves recalcitrant, the case goes to an administrative hearing. If the employer is found guilty they must pay the sum they stole, plus an additional two times the original amount (an employer who steals $100, would owe $300), along with administrative costs to the county. The law went into effect in March 2010, and phone calls began promptly, resulting in between $400,000 and $500,000 in recovered wages for 350 workers (as of April 2012). The hearings began 10 months later, in January 2011, and have resulted in a further $500,000 in recovered wages. (Another $2.5 million in claims are pending.)

“I think government taking a stand, at any level, is a deterrent,” says Jeanette Smith, director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice. “[But] not every single wage-theft claim will get through whatever program exists. There’s just too many of them. We work with workers on shame campaigns; we do that alongside the process. Any attempt against wage theft should be multi-pronged.” The Miami-Dade ordinance has an annual budget of only $75,000 for enforcement, so the continuing support of the workers’ organizations is essential.

While the ordinance faced little opposition when first passed (it is enthusiastically supported by the city’s fiscally conservative Republican mayor), employer groups have been ramping up their opposition, in court and in the legislature. Opposition intensified after Palm Beach County began working on its own ordinance. Big companies like Macy’s and Walmart are spearheading the pushback, even though no claims have been made against them. Business-side solidarity is strong and the companies seem to want to strangle the law before it becomes commonplace.

This seems to suggest that as anti-wage theft laws grow in number, industry and conservative opposition will only increase. But the moral weight is inarguably on the side of workers, and in the midst of an ongoing state and local fiscal crisis these laws are a cheap way to win back lost revenue, along with wages. In recent years, anti-wage theft laws have cropped up in New Mexico, Massachusetts, Washington State (Seattle instituted additional protections), and San Francisco, while Madison, Wisconsin, Washington, DC, and San Francisco have all mandated tougher enforcement campaigns.

In the near future, Marco Jacal's and Isidro Suarez's victory may not be so unusual. 


Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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