The following is an excerpt from United-NY’s 2012 report “Workers Rising: Organizing Service Jobs for Shared Prosperity in New York City (2012). [PDF]

Even when workers are employed, they often don’t get paid the wages that they have earned. The numbers are staggering: A seminal 2010 study by the National Employment Law Project on wage theft in New York City found that for the week studied one in five low wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage, and that 77 percent of employees who worked more than 40 hours in the previous week were not paid the legally required overtime rate.1

Additionally, ninety-three percent of workers who earned it did not receive the one-hour bonus pay guaranteed by New York Law for working more than ten hours in a day. Sixty-nine percent of workers were not paid for off-the-clock work.

Seventy percent of workers legally entitled to meal breaks did not receive them; 37 percent of tipped workers did not receive the appropriate minimum wage; 55 percent of workers did not get a legally-mandated pay stub. All told, low-wage workers in New York City have nearly $1 billion in wages stolen from them every year.

Why has wage theft reached epidemic proportions? Why do employers routinely flout minimum wage and overtime laws? First, workers (reasonably) fear retaliation if they speak up to demand their wages. The study found that while only 23 percent of all the workers surveyed reported that they had made a complaint to their employer or attempted to organize a union in the past year, fully 42 percent of these workers experienced one or more forms of illegal retaliation by their employer or supervisor such as firing or suspending workers, threatening to call immigration authorities, or cutting pay. Second, city, state, and federal governments simply have not dedicated enough resources to enforcement.

There are only 1,000 United States Department of Labor investigators responsible for ensuring compliance in 7 million workplaces. The average employer has just a 0.001% chance of being investigated by the USDOL Wage and Hour Division or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in any given year. And the odds are no better at the state level. According to a nationwide survey, states have the equivalent of one inspector for every 146,000 workers.2

When breaking the law carries so few consequences, there is little incentive to comply with it.

Workers are fighting to end the epidemic of wage theft. In 2010, in response to a campaign led by Make the Road New York, the New York Legislature passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which amended the state’s labor law to significantly increase penalties for wage theft and retaliation, provide more transparency and disclosure to workers about their wages and their rights, and improve the administrative processes for levying penalties and collecting unpaid wages. Now New York’s labor laws are the strongest in the country and a model for other states. In recent years, advocates in dozens of states from Florida to Washington and California to Maine have pushed legislation to eliminate wage theft, and their fights continue today.

Notes

1. Annette Bernhardt, et al, Working Without Laws: A Survey of Labor Law Violations in New York City (2010).
2. NELP, Winning Wage Justice: Talking Points on the Need for Stronger Anti-Wage Theft Laws (2012)