Low-wage workers deserve protection from predatory employers

Wage theft is a crime wave swiftly swallowing up any progress low-wage hourly workers have made toward a living wage.

Colorado workers are trapped in the nationwide crime wave that allows employers to skim the wages of their hourly employees and divert the funds to their own use.

This is not a new issue in Colorado or in the rest of the country. Since 1938 when the Fair Labor Practices Act was passed, unscrupulous employers have openly flouted the law by using a variety of excuses, or none at all, to divert wages owed to workers into employer accounts.

The problem, explained state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, who authored a bill to impose criminal charges for wage theft before capitulating to business groups, is that “some 5,200 people call the Labor Department each year to accuse employers of not paying them properly.”

Put into context, that number is credible. No doubt some complaints of wage theft are frivolous, but the practice is so common that the majority of worker claims may have some merit.

Calling wage theft “A crime you can get away with,” an analysis by Progressive States Network charges that “wage theft, or the illegal underpayment of workers, has become so widespread, it affects millions of workers across the country and is nearly ubiquitous in certain industries: retail, restaurants, hospitality, day-labor, warehousing, child care, and construction. That’s a lot of people – already not getting paid enough – whose bosses illegally make their paychecks even lighter.”

Citing “shocking” figures from multiple research projects in “three of our largest cities,” PSN reports that “64 percent of low-wage workers experience wage theft each week, 26 percent are paid under the legal minimum wage, 76 percent of workers who are owed overtime go unpaid or underpaid for those hours.

“On average,” the report concludes, “low-wage workers lose 15 percent of their income each year to wage theft — $51 per week, or $2,634 per year.”

Nationally, that amounts to billions of dollars annually taken illegally from workers least able to sacrifice their earnings for the benefit of their bosses’ bottom line.

If an employee nicked the company for more than $2,500, there is little question the worker would be prosecuted for theft, punished to the extent allowed by law and branded in the public mind as a thief.

A few states have taken steps to hold employers criminally responsible for wage theft, but in most venues, including Colorado, it is considered only a civil violation. These regulatory infractions are normally settled by state agencies, and they only get to court after a tedious process to exhaust all civil remedies is completed.

The Colorado Senate had the opportunity to make it a crime to illegally withhold wages in this state. Last year Ulibarri introduced a bill that would have made it a crime for an employer to fail to pay wages due an employee for all hours worked.

Under pressure from business groups, this proposal quickly failed in the Senate, only to reappear again this year with an opposite purpose.

The law first drafted to protect workers from exploitation by employers who refuse to pay required overtime or violate other worker protections has become a shield to prevent employers from exposure to lawsuits from workers denied the pay they were promised.

As Ed Sealove reported in the Denver Business Journal, “The 2013 version of the bill contained criminal penalties for employers that violated the law even unknowingly, and offered what opponents said was a playing field tilted toward accusers in the legal system.”

Rather than leveling the playing field in 2014, the bosses simply tilted it in their own direction by taking wage theft charges out of the court system and forcing them into a civil process adjudicated by Labor Department bureaucrats.

According to Sealove, Jeff Weist, a lobbyist for the groups opposing criminal penalties for wage theft, explains that “eliminating criminal penalties and moving the majority of claims out of the court system and into a state administrative process, the measure creates checks and balances and limits the problems that can be created for employers who are accused wrongly of not paying wages.”

While offering considerable protection for “wrongly accused” employers, the bill does little to help actually wronged workers.

Until Colorado and other states recognize that the rights of workers are as valid those of employers, there will be little or no peace in the workplace.

“The issue of wage theft is very simple,” Ullibarri said. “When people work a hard day, they should be paid.”

And that includes overtime.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).













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