This commentary appeared in Workers World Today on September 21, 2018.
By Howie Hawkins
Wage theft can even happen to unionized workers
BROOKLYN (Workers World Today) — National studies have shown that one-third of low-wage workers experience wage theft every week. Two-thirds have had wages stolen at some point in their work lives.
Employers use a variety of means to avoid paying wages their workers have earned: working them off the clock, failing to pay overtime, failing to pay the minimum wage, and simply disappearing without paying, an occurrence that is too often experienced by workers who are hired by contractors for temporary laboring jobs in construction, demolition, landscaping, and truck loading, hauling, and unloading.
But it is not just low-wage workers in smaller businesses who face wage theft. A study based on a compilation of court cases by Good Jobs First and Jobs with Justice found that wage theft is built into the business model of some of America’s biggest corporations. Walmart, with $1.4 billion in total wage theft settlements and fines, is the worst offender, followed by FedEx with $502 million. Retailing is the industry with the highest aggregate penalties ($2.7 billion), followed by financial services ($1.4 billion), freight and logistics ($828 million), business services ($611 million), and insurance ($557 million). Among top offenders are household names like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and State Farm Insurance.
Wage theft can even happen to unionized workers, as I found out working at UPS. Several years ago, after I was paid an hour less than I worked and paid for straight time instead of the overtime rate I was owed for working on a Sunday, my request to management to get it corrected was unsuccessful. Fortunately, we have a grievance procedure in our Teamsters union contract with UPS. I filed a grievance and also told the other workers unloading trucks with me to start writing down the times they punched in and out. Sure enough, a number of the younger workers were being cheated 5 to 10 minutes a shift by supervisors who were changing their times in order to improve the numbers they reported to managers higher up the food chain. So we filed another grievance. In this case, the higher management did their own investigation and ended up firing the supervisors who were stealing time from us. The day we got our double back-pay checks, the penalty provided for in the contract, was the day that the two supervisors were perp-walked out of our UPS hub by sheriff’s deputies. It was my best day ever working at UPS.
Having a union willing to back up grievances filed for wage theft is probably the best way for workers to defend themselves from thieving employers. But anti-wage theft laws can and should help.
An estimated $1 billion in wages is stolen from workers in New York State each year, but they have only recovered about $22 million a year since 2011.
Wage theft was an issue we raised during the 2010 gubernatorial election campaign. We wanted to beef up enforcement resources in the Department of Labor to deal with the 2-year backlog of wage theft cases. We also pushed for passage of the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which provided for stiffer penalties for wage theft and for retaliating against workers who filed complaints about wage theft. The bill was enacted in April 2011. But the provision that required employers to notify workers in writing each year of their wage rates, overtime rates, regular paydays, and names and addresses of employers, was rescinded in December 2014, after the next gubernatorial election.
The anti-wage theft agenda we pushed in 2014 is the same one we are pushing in 2018. We continue to call for hiring more Labor Department investigators to deal with the backlog of wage theft cases. The Cuomo administration succeeded in reducing the backlog artificially in 2015, by reducing from 6 years to 3 years to the amount of time the Labor Department will look back to investigate wage theft cases.
The central focus anti-wage theft campaigning that is still on the agenda is the passage of the SWEAT (Securing Wages Earned Against Theft) Act. Too often workers never get paid back wages even when they win their cases in court. The SWEAT Act will give workers a tool to pry back their wages from wage-stealing employers, which will be the right of workers owed wages to file a lien against the assets of their employer.
We are also demanding that Governor Cuomo immediately rescind his Department of Labor’s regulation that permits – in defiance of three state court rulings – employers to work home attendants in 24-hour shifts for 13 hours pay. Not paying those workers for 11 hours on a 24-hour shift is a form of wage theft that has been legalized by the Department of Labor regulation. A lawsuit filed by workers to get this regulation repealed is now being litigated.
Howie Hawkins, a recently retired Teamster in Syracuse, is the 2018 Green Party candidate for Governor of New York.