Three congressional Democrats introduced a bill on Wednesday aimed at cracking down on employers who fail to pay their workers all the wages they earn.
Sens. Patty Murray (WA), Sherrod Brown (OH) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) unveiled the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act, legislation that would increase penalties for employer wage theft and make it easier for affected workers to get paid what they are owed.
Currently, workers cheated out of their pay can only attempt to recover stolen wages at the minimum wage regardless of how much they earn. The new measure would allow workers to fully recover their losses. Employees can also seek triple their stolen wages in damages, plus interest, under the bill. Civil penalties for wage theft would increase, and a new penalty of $2,000 would be introduced to target employers who violate minimum wage and overtime laws, or who force employees to work off the clock. Repeat offenders would be hit with even stiffer penalties.
“Too many people across the country go to work every day to support themselves and their families only to have their bosses cheat them out of their hard-earned pay,” said Murray, the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, according to The Hill. “This bill would help even the playing field for the vast majority of businesses that are treating their workers fairly, and it would empower more workers by making sure their paychecks reflect the hours and hard work they put in on the job.”
Brown added that “it’s shameful that employers are reaching into the pockets of low-income workers who have bills to pay and families to feed.”
“We must create a system where employers who steal wages are held accountable and workers have the tools they need to recover their wages when they’ve been cheated,” he said.
“The greatest economic challenge facing our country today is that too many people are in jobs that do not pay them enough,” asserted DeLauro. “That issue is exacerbated by the growing epidemic of wage theft. Plain and simple—employees should be paid for their work. All of their work.”
Ross Eisenbrey at the Economic Policy Institute, which advocates for working and middle class families, called wage theft “a serious social and economic problem” that “could amount to more than $20 billion a year in stolen or underpaid wages, including non-payment of overtime pay, failure to pay the federal, state or local minimum wage and failure to pay statutorily required prevailing wages.” A study by the US Department of Labor suggests that minimum wage violations alone range from $8 billion to $14 billion annually.
“The consequences of these losses are serious: increased poverty, hardship for the near-poor, lost tax revenues for governments, including lost Social Security and Medicare contributions and increasing inequality,” wrote Eisenbrey. “When the employers who commit wage theft go unpunished it undermines their law-abiding competitors and generally diminishes respect for and faith in the rule of law.”
“The Murray-Brown-DeLauro anti-wage theft legislation could be powerful enough to stop the spreading epidemic of wage theft and make the labor market a safer place for workers and honest businesses alike,” he added.
There have been numerous protests against wage theft in recent years, including by janitors in southern California, port truck drivers in Los Angeles and Long Beach and fast-food workers across the nation. Wage theft lawsuits have also been filed by Walmart employees, home care workers, fast-food workers and others.
Measures to curb wage theft have been generally opposed by Republican lawmakers. In 2014, House Republicans voted down a measure that would have discouraged the federal government from awarding contracts to companies guilty of wage theft.