Lowballing Low-Wage Workers

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image by Blair Kelly / www.blairkellystudio.com

Generations of bold, tenacious activists have fought long, bloody battles to guarantee and expand workers’ rights in America. That’s why lunch breaks, overtime pay, and minimum wage requirements, flawed though they may be, are enshrined in U.S. labor and employment law. According to a recent study conducted by a group of economic justice organizations, however, these hard-won regulations still don’t protect a significant number of the nation’s low-wage workers, whose employers regularly flout labor laws to rob them of time and money. For instance, 69 percent of those surveyed were denied a meal break, had their respite interrupted regularly by an employer, or were forced to work through the set-aside time.

The report, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” tracks the extent of these legal and moral violations in the country’s three largest cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, where the authors polled 4,387 low-wage workers in industries such as food service, retail, construction, and domestic work. The findings from this “census of the invisible” are featured in The American Prospect (Oct. 2009).

Twenty-six percent of those surveyed were paid below the minimum wage, 25 percent had been paid late at some point in the previous year, and 57 percent had not received pay stubs, which are guaranteed by those states’ laws, in the previous week. All told, 68 percent of the workers reported at least one pay-related violation just in the week prior to the survey.

“The average worker lost $51, out of average weekly earnings of $339,” the report states. “Assuming a full-time, full-year work schedule, we estimate that these workers lost an average of $2,634 annually due to workplace violations, out of total earnings of $17,616. That translates into wage theft of 15 percent of earnings.”

On a broad scale, then, in a given week pay-related violations affect over 1 million workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, and keep more than $56.4 million out of their pockets. * A new battle plan needs to be drawn up, the report’s authors conclude, to prompt stronger enforcement of labor laws and a public policy agenda that creates better jobs and rewards responsible companies.

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