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(206) 442-9106

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Low-Wage Workers’ Rights Regularly Violated

This article by Timothy W. Emery, Esq., a partner with Emery Reddy, PLLC, Attorneys at Law.

Low-wage employees are often denied appropriate overtime pay and paid less than the minimum wage, according to a recent study based on a survey of employees in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Researchers for this study, entitled “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” found that 68 percent of the interviewed workers had experienced one or more pay-related violation in the previous work week.

The study, said to be the most extensive examination of wage-law violations in a decade, was born from efforts and financing by several foundations, including the Ford, Russel Sage, Haynes and Joyce Foundations; several additional experts in the field also contributed to the research, including University of California sociology professor Ruth Milkman.

4,387 workers were included in the study, and many were found to have been the victims of various low-wage industries like clothing manufacturing and discount retailing. As a result of wage violations in the week prior to the study, the average worker had been cheated out of 15% of their pay, or $51 out of their weekly earnings of $339.

The study also revealed that employers were successful in pressuring workers not to file for workers’ compensation—one of the most appalling findings in the study, according to researchers. 8 percent of those who suffered on-the-job injuries or other work related injuries were pressured not to file for workers’ compensation to cover medical care, treatment of the work-related injuries, and missed days at work stemming from their injuries. In circumstances when workers’ compensation should have been available to injured workers, a third of workers injured on-the-job were forced to pay bills to medical providers out-of-pocket, and 22 percent were forced to use their own health insurance. The study revealed that workers’ compensation insurance paid for legitimate medical expenses from on-the-job injuries for only 6 percent of the injured workers surveyed.

Commonly held beliefs previously dictated that such tactics and violations were confined to a few outlying bad employers and that such tactics were used on disadvantaged employees or undocumented workers and immigrants. However, only 39 percent of the workers surveyed were illegal immigrants, 31 percent legal immigrants, and 30 percent native-born Americans. According to Nik Theodore, one of the study’s authors and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago, “What the study shows is that these practices are a widespread phenomenon across the low-wage labor market in the United States.”

Researchers also discovered that 26 percent of the workers were paid less than the minimum wage the week before being surveyed and that one in seven had worked without pay at some point during the week prior to the study. 76 percent of overtime workers were not paid their proper compensation the week before the study.

The study was conducted in 2008 before the full impact of the current recession had taken effect, and when minimum wage rates in California and New York were $8 and $7.15 an hour, respectively. More than 75% of the workers surveyed earned less than $10 an hour. The study also found that women are more likely than men to be victims of minimum wage violations, while the highest incidence of wage law violations occurs among young female illegal immigrants.

Another common employer tactic that came to light from the study was the practice of withholding mandatory pay documents, which would otherwise tend to ensure pay accuracy.  57 percent of interviewees had not received mandatory pay documents the previous week. For those workers who receive tips, 12 percent said some of their tips were actually stolen by their employers.

Retaliation was also found to be rampant. One in five workers reported launching complaints about their wages to their employer or trying to form a union in the previous year, and according to the study, 43 percent of those workers experienced some form of illegal retaliation like firing or suspension.

Many small businesses say they are forced to violate wage laws to remain competitive. Another project author, Annette Bernhardt, was outspoken in condemning such practices: he claimed that these practices “are not just morally reprehensible, but they’re bad for the economy. When unscrupulous employers break the law, they’re robbing families of money to put food on the table, they’re robbing communities of spending power and they’re robbing governments of vital tax revenues.”

For more information on our practice, please visit Emery Reddy, PLLC online, or contact us via telephone at (206) 442-9106.

Emery Reddy represents plaintiffs in L&I, employment law and personal injury matters.  The firm and its attorneys are trusted advocates for Washington workers who experience job related injuries.

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