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Editorial Reflections

Negative attitudes toward labor leave workers unprotected

A book or website of devotional writings can often give us hard things to think about, but it doesn’t usually give us hard data on a pressing issue.

“The Power of a Pay Stub” was Sept. 3 commentary in the Stillspeaking United Church of Christ daily devotionalby the Rev. Lillian Daniel, a pastor in Glen Ellyn, Ill..  It is based on James 5:4.  It was foot-noted with links to studies about wage theft.

“A recent study of low-paid workers found that 57 percent do not get a pay stub,” Lillian began.  Without a pay stub a worker does not know any facts about his/her work week: if the number of hours worked is reported accurately, if the pay rate was the one agreed to, what taxes were paid and what other deductions were taken.

She used the first half of James 5:4.  Here is the whole verse: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (NRSV)

Because employers are required to keep records of how wages are calculated, why wouldn’t they want to give their workers pay stubs?  Without a pay stub, the worker can’t prove he has been shortchanged.

One link leads to the website of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans.  They cite a study, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers.” It gives an idea of the scope of the crime of wage theft.  The study involved interviews with more than 4,300 low-wage workers in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. 

The findings come from the workers’ previous week of work. 

Here is a part of their summary:

• 76 percent who worked overtime were not paid the legally required time and a half;

• 69 percent were not given meal breaks;

• 70 percent were not paid at all for extra work done outside of their regular shifts;

• 89 percent of in-home child care workers did not receive the minimum wage;

• 69  percent did not receive their full pay;

• 43 percent experienced illegal retaliation following complaints;

• 30 percent of tipped workers were not paid the tipped-worker’s minimum wage;

• 26 percent of low-wage workers were paid less than minimum wage, and

• only 6 percent of injured workers received coverage for medical expenses.

In her book, Wage Theft in America, Kim Bobo pointed out that wage theft is committed by:

• not paying minimum wage,

• not paying time-and-a-half for overtime,

• forcing employees to work “off the clock,”

• not giving employees their final paychecks,

• not letting injured employees file worker’s compensation claims,

• misclassifying employees as “independent contractors” to avoid paying minimum wage, overtime and Social Security, and

• not paying employees at all!

Why is this happening? 

In 2005, the report of a 1975 to 2004 study by the Brennan Center for Justice cited “dramatic stagnation or decline in enforcement resources and activities by the Department of Labor and its Wage and Hour Division.”  During that period, the number of workers covered by wage-and-hour laws grew by 55 percent, and the number of covered establishments grew by 112 percent.

In July 2008, a representative of the Government Accountability Office testified before a House of Representatives committee about failure of the Wage and Hour Division to investigate complaints. 

An undercover study, revealed in March 2009, reported “sluggish response times, a poor complaint intake process and failed conciliation attempts, among other problems.”  The undercover study had been requested by the House Committee on Education and Labor.

The problem has grown, just as the inequalities in our society, negative attitudes toward organized labor, lax enforcement of laws and cuts in Labor Department personnel have grown.

Why has it taken us so long to become aware of it?

A growing number of workers are losing 15 percent of their income through wage theft.  No wonder so many employed people need food stamps.

What kind of books are these employers keeping?  Employees are tax deductions, so are they recording the shorted wages or are they keeping two sets of books?  Both are illegal.  Isn’t it a matter for the Department of Justice?

It is a matter on the agenda of the Faith Action Network of Washington as a concern of many faith communities.

The Jesuit Institute newsletter report on the study opened with Deut. 24:14-15: “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers . . . . You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”  Would people doing this feel guilt?  Is the bottom line the only thing they see?

There’s more information on the study at unprotectedworkers.org.

Nancy Minard - Contributing editor

 




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