Thievery All Around

With Afghanistan bordering on quagmire status, the economy spiraling farther down every day, and a host of environmental/energy/infrastructure issues waiting to be moved off the backburner, let’s talk about another important topic:

Wage theft.

Funny name, serious message

Funny name, serious message

Yes, I can hear that collective “huh?” already. I had sort of the same reaction before I went to hear Kim Bobo speak at the Chicago Public Library last night, illuminating the concerns she raises in her new book, Wage Theft in America.

Bobo is the founder of Interfaith Worker Justice here in Chicago and has a long history of addressing social justice issues. Her premise: Wage theft is happening all around us, its immoral, and consumers and the government need to do more to stop it.

Joining Bobo last night were Adam Kater of the Chicago Interfaith Worker Rights Center and one of his clients, Primo Hernandez. Primo gave us a personal example of wage theft. He worked for a few months for a local construction company and had no problem getting paid. Then, while he was still working – and paying for materials out of his own pocket – the owner stopped paying. Primo kept working, thinking the guy would ultimately do the right thing and pay him what he was owed. Instead, the guy told him to take a hike.

Wage theft.

At first glance, it seems immigrants like Primo (and perhaps mostly illegal ones, though that was not really discussed) are the most likely victims of doing a job and then getting stiffed. They don’t know the laws, often can’t speak the language, and if they are illegals, don’t want to rock the boat. But Bobo says the problem is bigger. Teens often don’t get the wages they deserve. In restaurants, owners will steal tips or simply refuse to pay overtime. She talked about Saigon Grill in New York City, a fairly tony place. Until recently delivery drivers slaved long hours for ridiculous pay; it worked out to be about $2 an hour. On top of that, they had to pay fines if they screwed up a delivery or committed other infractions. (The New York Times reported on the $4.6 million settlement the restaurant just paid.) Bobo talked about other companies that deduct wages as “fines” for workers already making very little.

Some of the stats on wage theft: 2 to 3 million working Americans are not paid minimum wage. (The federal minimum will be a whopping $7.25 come this July. Do the math on a 40-hour workweek over 50 weeks. Would you want to live on a gross of $15,080, especially if you had a kid to support? And then there’s the FICA and other taxes…) Another 3 million are classified as contractors when they are clearly employees, so the workers have to pay more taxes and get screwed out of benefits. The amount of overtime that workers are legally owed but that doesn’t get paid: at least $19 billion and perhaps as high as $40 billion.

That says it all...

That says it all...

Some of the perpetrators of wage theft are small-time operations, like the Chicago company screwing Primo or the ones who simply refuse to pay day laborers. But then we have the Big Daddy of wage thieves, Wal-Mart. It’s currently trying to settle 62 lawsuits involving wage theft. In one case, managers who didn’t want to pay the overtime they owed workers simply went into their computers and changed figures. Those 44 hours you said you worked? Well, ah, actually it was just 40.

(The overtime issue got me thinking back to my days at Weekly Reader. There was a hubbub there and at other media outlets over how writers were classified: exempt from overtime laws or non-exempt. We felt we were turning out a product, different only in kind from cars or cans of food. The company said we were management or professionals or some such, and so were exempt. Now, I’d like to think we were professional in one sense of the word, but not in the sense of receiving special schooling or being licensed. In any event, we never saw any OT.)

Not surprisingly, Bobo said the enforcement of laws aimed at curbing wage theft was pretty lax during the Bush years. It’s even worse at the state level, in many instances; Florida has no one in the enforcement division of its department of labor. Unions offer workers some protection against wage theft, but union membership (about 10 percent of the workforce) and union public perception has never been lower. The union-busting and bashing under Reagan has played a part. So has the too-frequent examples of abuse we could all recite: union leaders collecting fat pay checks and perks, unions protecting workers who obviously suck at or don’t give a shit about their jobs (both public and private sector, but judging from what I’ve seen in Chicago, the Post Office and the city government take the goldbrick award).

The Ludlow, CO, coal strike, 1914 - National Guarld kills 20 people, including 11 kids, at the strikers' tent city

The Ludlow, CO, coal strike, 1914 - National Guarld kills 20 people, including 11 kids, at the strikers' tent city

Bobo didn’t mention this, but I will – whatever bad thoughts you have about unions, remember what they have given us. The five-day workweek and the 8-hour day came from organized labor. So did the end of child labor and improvements in working conditions. Union members fought for those rights, and at times literally. Our history is filled with both companies and governments beating and killing striking workers. Unions have a place. Building them up – while also trying to curb the corruption – should be part of an Obama labor agenda.

Bobo hopes the new head of the Department of Labor, Hilda Solis, will strengthen the enforcement of laws on wage theft. Another help would be a database showing all the companies that have been cited for wage theft, so consumers can avoid them and patronize ethical businesses. And it is all about ethics. The same thing that led to the housing bubble and banking collapse – greed – compels business owners to steal what their workers have honestly earned. And even getting caught does not end the greed. Most companies are only required to pay the back wages. No fines, and certainly no jail time, for those white-collar crooks.

What can we do? Try to learn which companies are ethical and give them our business. Ask wait staff in restaurants if they will get all of the tip if you put it on a charge card. If not, give ’em cash. Educate yourself about your rights as a worker (this applies to white-collar folks too, who can be screwed with severance packages and the like; and to that end, Bobo’s group will soon be launching a new website, canmybossdothat.com). Tell your lawmakers to make this issue a priority. Workers who don’t get their pay can’t support their families, can’t support local businesses. Wal-Mart’s saving a few million to benefit its shareholders doesn’t help the Wal-Mart worker whose spouse just got laid off.

Bobo started her talk with a quote from Deuteronomy 24:14, showing the deep roots of wage theft and the ethical proscriptions against it. “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers…otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.” Normally Bible quotes put me off a bit, but this one, and the presence of several ministers there last night, reminded me that Bobo and Adam Kater’s work is with interfaith groups. Religious and lay members alike from different faiths fighting for social justice. I have badmouthed close-minded Christians in the past here at C?WC?, so let me tip my hat to the faithful who take on these below-the-radar issues that impact so many without a political voice. That, to me, is doing God’s work, and I bet there’s no wage theft there.

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~ by mburgan on January 27, 2009.

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