There are lots of thieves in this country, as there are in any country. But no thieves anywhere are more brazen than the U.S. employers who steal millions of dollars from their own employees.
The cheating bosses pay workers less than the legal minimum wage, or less than they promised to pay them. Or they fail to pay employees extra for overtime work. Some bosses even force employees to work for free before or after their regular work shifts, or at other times.
That and other employer cheating is most seriously evident in the restaurant, retail and construction businesses, where undocumented workers make up much of the workforce. Their illegal status makes them easy pickings for unscrupulous bosses.
The full extent of employer cheating is not known. But one reliable study shows that in New York City alone, workers are cheated out of more than $18 million a week.
Under heavy pressure from immigrants' advocates and unions, New York State recently enacted an anti-wage theft law that ideally would set a national pattern. Beginning in April, New York employers caught shortchanging workers will have to fully reimburse them, plus pay a fine of up to twice the amount of the reimbursement. The law also allows up to $10,000 in added penalties for employers who fire or threaten workers for protesting their underpayment. Such employer actions are apparently common nationwide. The fines in New York and other states have been so relatively slight that many cheating employers simply consider them part of the cost of doing business.
Legislation like New York's has been introduced in Congress and several state legislatures. But despite the great and obvious need for much tougher laws the chances for passage of the measures are slim at best, as are the chances for much tougher enforcement.
In the meantime, millions of workers will continue to be victimized by cheating employers. They will continue to be denied wages they lawfully earned and fully expected, wages that many need I they are to make a decent living.
With a Perspective, this is Dick Meister.