Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

In Illinois, Wage Thieves Will Pay

August 4th, 2010 | James Parks

Image: James ParksIllinois employers who shortchange or don’t pay their employees will face felony charges for repeat offenses and, in all cases, will be forced to pay back wages plus interest and fines under a new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn (D) last week.

The new law, which experts say is the toughest anti-wage theft law in the country, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2011. It also gives workers more rights to ensure they are paid what they earn.

Chris Williams, executive director of the Working Hands Legal Clinic in Chicago, which led the effort to pass the law, told the Associated Press the law particularly benefits those who are most vulnerable: low-wage, temporary and immigrant workers. Low-wage workers are often paid in cash, making record-keeping difficult, and some undocumented workers fear retaliation if they speak up.

Such laws passed in Illinois and other states are important because they help generate momentum for a national policy, says Ted Smukler, public policy director at Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). If the law is administered the right way, it would help workers get justice quicker than the current system, he said.

IWJ, under the leadership of executive director Kim Bobo, has been in the forefront of efforts to stop wage theft. IWJ is organizing a National Day of Action on wage theft on Nov. 18, to increase awareness of the issue and ways workers and communities have fought back. If your worker center, local union or worker advocacy group would like to organize an event on Nov.18 and coordinate with IWJ, contact Smukler at tsmukler@iwj.org.

The new law gives the state Department of Labor more oversight in dealing with the more than 10,000 wage theft claims it receives each year. The department will have authority to directly adjudicate claims of $3,000 or less.

The Illinois law is part of a growing national focus on stemming the epidemic of wage theft. In April, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis unveiled a new campaign to inform workers about their pay rights and to put a stop to wage theft.

Earlier this year, the Miami- Dade County Commission approved a country-wide wage theft ordinance. Several states, including  New York, Washington State, Massachusetts and New Mexico, have toughened penalties for employers who steal workers wages, Smukler said.

A recent study found that low-wage workers in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles are routinely denied proper overtime pay and often are paid less than minimum wage.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris

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