What Workplace Bullying Advocates Can Learn From “Wage Theft” Legislation

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 4.05.02 AMUnenforced and inadequate laws allow a surprising number of employers to regularly steal billions of dollars from their workers by paying below the minimum wage and ignoring their responsibility to pay for overtime hours. Probably the most famous example is the $352 million settlement Walmart paid in 2008. Four years later the Department of Labor forced Walmart to cough up an additional $5 million for misrepresenting 4,500 workers as exempt from overtime pay.

It’s a cautionary tale for those of us who want to enact legislation to prevent workplace bullying. ProgressiveStates.org analyzed the hodge podge of  laws and regulations to protect workers from “Wage Theft” already in place and ranked these polices on a state by state basis. New York & Massachusetts ranked in the Top 2 – with the rest of the states receiving barely passing or failing grades. The analysis shows that: “until the odds of being penalized are increased and the consequences of violations become substantially greater than the financial rewards of wage theft, there will be little reason for dishonest employers to change their behavior. Combined with the meager capacity for agency-based enforcement documented in other reports, weak laws virtually guarantee impunity for unethical employers.” Trying to ‘prod’ employers into doing the right thing by providing a “carrot on a stick” clearly isn’t working and it can easily be surmised that the same will be true if templates to protect workers from abusive work environments aren’t given real teeth. Typically minimum wage workers have few resources to hire and attorney so without an agency in place to enforce regulations employers continue to cut corners by shortchanging their employees.

Legislators are finally getting the message – at least in regards to “Wage Theft.” New York and Illinois have created stronger “Wage Theft” laws that can send a message.  In January Chicago became the second, and largest, city to address wage theft.  The Chicago City Council adopted a law “that will revoke the license of businesses found to engage in wage theft.” Chicago leaders cited a seminal survey, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws In America’s Cities,” that found that less than a third of low wage earners workers are actually born in the United States.  African-Americans are three times more likely to have their rights violated than white workers “who had by far the lowest violation rates in the sample.” The majority are naturalized or authorized and unauthorized immigrants, predominantly Latino/Latina, and female. Just under half are without a high school or GED diploma.

Creating New Policy

The authors of “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” lay out what they believe will help legislators and policy makers improve conditions for workers and ultimately our communities:

  • Three principles should drive the development of a new policy agenda to protect the rights of workers. Strengthen government enforcement of employment and labor laws: Public policy should  leverage the resources and power that reside in agencies responsible for enforcing worker  protections. This will require additional staffing, but more important, new strategies are needed to address the reality that workplace violations are becoming standard practice in many low wage industries. 
  • ƒUpdate legal standards for the 21st century labor market: Weak employment and labor laws open the door to low-road business strategies focused on illegally cutting labor costs. Raising the minimum wage, updating health and safety standards, ending exclusions that deny workers coverage, and strengthening the right of workers to organize through labor law reform—all are key improvements that would raise compliance in the workplace and improve the competitive position 
  • of employers who play by the rules. Establish equal status for immigrants in the workplace: The best inoculation against workplace violations is ensuring that workers know their rights, have full status under the law to assert them, have access to sufficient legal resources, and do not fear retaliation. But for unauthorized immigrant workers today, this can be a near impossibility. Any policy initiative to reduce workplace violations must prioritize equal protection and equal status in national immigration reform, and ensure status-blind enforcement of employment and labor laws

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