December 22, 2014

Rallying against wage theft

Wage theft rally in Madison

Wage theft rally in Madison

We’ve all heard of employee theft, but what about employers who steal from workers? According to Patrick Hickey with Madison’s Workers’ Rights Center, it’s a growing problem. At a rally at the Capitol, Hickey said federal legislation would extend the two year statute of limitations that the Department of Labor has to meet in its attempts to recover unpaid wages. Hickey said it generally takes the department three to four years to resolve complaints. He said the WRC filed a complaint on behalf of some restaurant workers in Madison two and a half years ago. The investigation is ongoing, and if it’s ever resolved in the workers’ favor “they won’t see a dime,” said Hickey. Hickey said the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development does a pretty good job handling complaints, but that there needs to be tougher enforcement at the federal level.

Patrick Hickey (14:00) AUDIO: Patrick Hickey (14:00 MP3)

Sarah White from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at UW Madison said low wage workers are getting “stiffed” in Wisconsin. “It is not happening in overseas sweatshops, it’s happening right here,” said White. “This is a huge trend that’s shaping the American workplace, and threatening, really our whole economic recovery here in Wisconsin and around the country.” White said the low wage workers who are denied their wages spend most of their money in local economies. She noted that many employers who engage in wage find it’s cheaper to withhold wages and pay the fines, then it is to pay workers what they’re owed. She noted that also gives those businesses an unfair advantage over competing businesses who are playing by the rules.

Wage theft occurs in a variety of ways, said the WRC’s Hickey. Workers report not receiving the minimum wage, being denied overtime, having final paychecks withheld, being required to work off the clock, or having paychecks bounce. “Sometimes it’s a few hundred dollars, other times it runs into the thousands,” said Hickey. White said it’s difficult to get data on wage theft, because low wage workers tend to be an “invisible population.” But with the down economy, she expects to see more people forced to take low wage jobs, and that could lead to more complaints of wage theft. “We’re talking about low wage occupations across the economy,” she said. “Residential constriction, restaurants, retail, services, food processing, food service. Every community in Wisconsin has these businesses in them.”

Sarah White (11:00)AUDIO: Sarah White (11:00 MP3)

Events similar to the rally in Madison took place in 30 cities around the nation on Thursday, part of a National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft, sponsored by the national Interfaith Worker Justice Network.