Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Is the Labor Department Dragging Its Feet On Promising Anti-Wage Theft Measure?

March 14th, 2011 | Mike Elk

photo_86504Advocates estimate that tens of billions dollars are stolen from workers every year through wage theft. A national survey of workers in the United States’ three largest cities – New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – showed the startling finding that 26 percent of those surveyed in low-wage industries were paid less than the minimum wage in the last year and 75 percent were not paid overtime. The survey showed that 15 percent of the earnings of low-wage workers were stolen each year.

Part of the problem is that often workers don’t have the ability to prove that their wages were stolen. Pay stubs do not have uniform standards that clearly indicate overtime, wage per hour, exact days, and hours worked. Ten states do not even require employers to provide pay stubs for workers. The uneven standards and lack of uniformity and clarity in standards makes it very difficult for workers to prove that wages are stolen.

It would cost employers almost nothing to provide workers with such information. Already, employers are required to keep this information and give it to the IRS, state tax authorities, and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), just not to the workers. So it’s not as if companies do not already collect this information—they simply don’t want to give it to workers. Earlier this year, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a statement indicating it intended to make a rule making greater standards and transparency. The Department announced that

Wage and Hour Division [of the Department] intends to publish a proposed rule updating the recordkeeping regulation issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to assist employers in planning to protect workers’ entitlement to wages that they have earned and bring greater transparency and openness to the workplace.

The proposed rule would address notification of workers’ status as employees or some other status such as independent contractors, and whether that worker is entitled to the protections of the FLSA. The proposed rulemaking would also explore requiring employers to provide a wage statement each pay period to their employees.

But anti-wage theft activists are saying the rule is not taking effect quickly enough.

“We are encouraged that the DOL is proposing a regulation that would mandate pay stubs. But the devil is in the details,” says Ted Smukler, policy director at Interfaith Worker’s Justice Center, which has helped make the country’s wage theft crisis visible nationally. “The regulatory language has not been released, even while this has been on the DOL’s agenda since the fall of 2009. Meanwhile, tens of millions of workers are ripped off every week. Whether it’s through regulatory reform or passing national legislation mandating that businesses provide workers detailed pay records, something must be done.”

It goes without saying that struggling American workers need every dollar they earn in order to survive. But as the U.S. economy sputters back to life after the worst recession in 70 years, it’s worth pointing out that eliminating wage theft would not only be the just thing to do—it could prove an economic stimulus.

This blog originally appeared in www.inthesetimes.com on March 10, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Alternet, The Atlantic and The American Prospect. Mike Elk is a labor journalist and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, D.C. He has written for Harper’s Magazine, the American Prospect and In These Times.

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