Commentary

To pay or not to pay

Workers get ripped off every day. Want proof? Just look around, says Kim
Bobo, author of the book Wage Theft in America (The New Press, 2008).
Or better yet, ask around, she said during a Minneapolis appearance this
winter. Ask your relatives, your neighbors, the people in the next pew, your
co-workers. It’s easy to find workers who aren’t paid what they’ve earned.
We’re not talking workers who aren’t paid what they think they deserve. We’re
talking workers who aren’t paid at all.

They aren’t paid for every hour they work. Aren’t paid overtime. Aren’t paid
minimum wage. Aren’t paid their final check when they quit, are fired, or get
laid off.

The Department of Labor’s own surveys show that, in entire sectors of the
economy, the majority of employers cheat workers. “Billions of dollars are
being stolen from millions of workers,” Bobo said. “It’s all around us. It’s not
one or two bad apples. It’s a bad orchard.”

During her speech at Salem English Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Bobo
highlighted a fraction of the tactics employers use.

* Restaurants keep tips if the customer puts the tip on a credit card instead
of tipping in cash.

* Car washes schedule workers for a full shift, but pay them only for the time
they’re actually washing a car.

* Nurses report early and stay late to cover shift change, but aren’t paid for
this transition time.

* Employers illegally misclassify workers, saying they’re “independent
contractors,” not employees. That means they avoid paying the workers’
Social Security, Medicare, workers compensation, and unemployment
insurance.

Rampant and systemic wage theft shouldn’t be surprising, Bobo said. After
all, the nation’s largest employer — Wal-Mart — “is modeling how to steal
wages from workers.”

A Dakota County judge recently found Wal-Mart guilty of violating
Minnesota’s wage-and-hour laws 2 million times over 10 years. He ordered
Wal-Mart to pay $6.5 million in back wages to workers at Wal-Mart and
Sam’s Club stores. Wal-Mart agreed to pay an additional $54 million to make
the lawsuit go away.

Across the country, Wal-Mart settled 64 other wage-theft lawsuits last year.
It agreed to pay as much as $694 million to employees in 42 states.

Employers get away with wage theft mainly because government agencies are
too understaffed to enforce the state and federal laws that exist, Bobo said.
The U.S. Labor Department has fewer than half the wage-and-hour
investigators it had in 1941, even though the nation’s workforce is nine times
larger.

Even when agencies do crack down, employers rarely have to pay every dollar
they owe workers. Fines are minimal, and employers never face jail time for
their actions. Companies are “terrified of the IRS, but not of the Department
of Labor,” said Bobo. As a result, it actually makes business sense to cheat
workers.

When government doesn’t enforce the law, others need to fill the gap, she
said. But ethical businesses are “missing in action” in the fight, even though
employers who cheat have a competitive advantage over those who don’t.

Unions are the best anti-theft device, she said. But unions represent only a
fraction of American workers, leaving the vast majority unprotected. Private
lawyers will take on big cases, but not small ones.

That leaves church-based worker centers, such as the one run by Workers
Interfaith Network (WIN) in the Twin Cities, to pick up the slack. Locally, WIN
has helped more than 500 workers collect more than $200,000 in unpaid
wages.

Worker centers accomplish what they do in part because people of faith are
willing to take direct action.

“We visit employers,” said Bobo, who founded Chicago-based Workers
Interfaith Justice. “We ask them to do the right thing. If they don’t, we
demonstrate the power of prayer.”

The “power of prayer” often means clergy in full vestments holding prayer
circles at a place of business. There’s nothing like public embarrassment to
help employers see the light, Bobo said.

The public could do more to hold companies accountable, she said — if
enforcement against bad employers were more transparent. “The Department
of Labor has no easily accessible database online that tracks wage-and-hour
violations. You can look up a restaurant’s health inspection online, but you
can’t find out which restaurants pay workers fairly and which ones don’t.”

Michael Kuchta is a member of Carpenters Local 87 and of Our Saviour’s
Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis.