Stealing from Poor Workers

ruth-milkmanBaltimore Ruth Milkman of UCLA and Nik Theodore of University of Illinois, Chicago are top researchers and obviously savvy enough to put out their study, Broken Promises, Unprotected Workers, as an exclusive to Steve Greenhouse at the Times to get maximum attention to their summary of surveys from over 4000 workers in 2008 which indicates that wage theft from workers is simply routine.  I wish this was a surprise, but of course it is not.  The whole report is probably timed to Labor Day.  Hopefully, Russell Sage Foundation which financed the report will say something more than “low wage workers are hard to find,” which was such a preposterous comment that I found myself laughing in the pre-dawn while I read the highlights.

The bullet points though are riveting:

  • “… a typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.”
  • “Only 8 percent of those who suffered serious injuries on the job filed for compensation to pay for medical care and missed days at work stemming from those injuries.”
  • “…26 percent of the workers had been paid less than the minimum wage the week before being surveyed…”
  • “… one in seven had worked off the clock the previous week.”
  • “…76 percent of those who had worked overtime the week before were not paid their proper overtime…”
  • “Of workers who receive tips, 12 percent said their employer had stolen some of the tips.”
  • “One in five workers reported having lodged a complaint about wages to their employer or trying to form a union in the previous year…”
  • “…43 percent of them said they had experienced some form of illegal retaliation, like firing or suspension….”

So, even with just the headlines and without reading the unreleased report, the “news” is clear:  low wage workers are robbed when well and when hurt by being paid less than the minimum wage, wrong overtime, and off the clock, but they are not passive and a significant minority are willing to stand up and do something, but almost half are brutalized on the job by intimidation tactics and slap down retaliations.

The DOL Secretary says she’s hiring 200 more Wage and Hour inspectors, but clearly that is inadequate after years of neglect, and there has been no reform of labor laws yet, so pretty much today is another day in the working life and the unwritten law for many businesses is that this just means it is another good day to steal from their own workers without much of a fear in the world that justice will be done.

America, what a country!

Last night at a Citizen Wealth event at SEIU 1199 in Baltimore a wage inspector for the State of Maryland asked me what did I know about innovative programs in other states being undertaken to enforce labor laws.  I had to answer essentially, “nothing, brother,” you are one of the few and not the many.  Today’s highlights on this report indicate that he is even more alone that I feared.

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