These are not great times for workers — or for unions. One bright spot, though, are new laws that protect workers from being cheated out of their wages. On April 9, New York will become the largest state yet to enact a law designed to reduce wage theft by employers. The law could mean, literally, tens of millions of more dollars in the pockets of workers.
Wage theft is a pervasive problem. As Kim Bobo documented in her now-classic 2009 book, Wage Theft in America, this is the “crime wave that nobody talks about.” Bobo showed that millions of workers are routinely cheated by employers who fail to pay minimum wage or overtime or break the law in other ways. New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse has also documented widespread wage theft, particularly at retail stores like Family Dollar Store where managers allegedly manipulated computerized time sheets to cheat workers. In 2008, Wal-Mart settled 63 cases in 42 states where the company had forced its employees to work “off the clock” — requiring unpaid work after employees had clocked out after their shifts. The settlement was staggering in scope, with Wal-Mart paying $352 million in unpaid wages in a case involving hundreds of thousands of current and former employees.
In New York alone, the National Employment Law Project has estimated that workers are cheated out of $1 billion in wages annually. Such losses in New York and other states not only negatively affect workers but also deprive government coffers of tax revenue.
Penalties for cheating workers have been paltry. As a New York Senate press release pointed out in fall 2010: “Under current law, there is little penalty for employers who violate wage requirements.
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