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Labor Voices: Crack down on wage theft

Ron Bieber

In Michigan, we put a high value on a hard day’s work. Whether you spend your day waiting tables, swinging a hammer on a construction site, or working behind a desk, everyone who works for a living should get paid for the work they do.

But according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, corporate CEOs are stealing nearly $500 million in wages from working people in Michigan each year. That’s outrageous. It’s bad for families, bad for the economy, and it needs to stop.

Wage theft occurs when an employer fails to pay their employees the full wages they have earned. According to the EPI, wage theft can take many different forms, such as: paying less than the minimum wage; failing to pay nonexempt employees time-and-a-half for overtime; requiring employees to work off-the-clock before or after their shifts; stealing tips from employees; misclassifying employees as independent contractors to circumvent minimum wage and tax withholding; and denying people their legal meal breaks.

The good news is, Democrats in Lansing are doing something about it. Last week Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, announced new legislation to crack down on wage theft and protect working families. The bills would:

Make enforcement a priority by doubling the number of staff in the state agency that is responsible for investigating wage theft cases.

Pay back stolen wages to employees, and increase the amount wage theft violators must pay the employees from two times the amount owed to three times the amount owed.

Strengthen penalties for bad actors by increasing the civil penalty for violators from 10 percent annually on the stolen wages and benefits up to 100 percent annually. The legislation would also increase the criminal penalties from a misdemeanor to a felony, with fines increasing from up to $1,000 to a maximum of $10,000 for repeat wage theft violators.

Earlier this year, Fox 17 in Grand Rapids reported that the company building a new Chick-fil-A in Wyoming failed to pay 24 construction workers a total of $35,000. As a result, paychecks bounced and bank accounts were frozen. One worker said he couldn’t afford to take his child to see a medical specialist. “Just do the right thing,” said Mark Richey, a carpenter who worked on the project. “Pay people what you owe them.”

These carpenters were fortunate to have a strong union fighting on their behalf, but not everyone is so lucky. Stories like this happen all the time, and most go unreported. That’s exactly why we need tougher laws to fight wage theft – to send a strong message to every employer that there will be stiff consequences for ripping off your employees.

The bills that were introduced last week are a good start, but now it’s up to Republicans in Lansing to show working families whose side they’re on.

Attorney General Bill Schuette likes to talk tough about “jobs and paychecks,” but the truth is, he’s turned a blind eye when it comes to enforcing wage theft laws. And right now Republicans in Lansing seem more focused on giving more handouts to wealthy CEOs than protecting the hard-earned wages of Michigan’s working men and women.

It’s time for state lawmakers to get their priorities straight, start working together, and pass these bills to crack down on wage theft.

Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.



Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.