A victory for labor in Chicago: a wage theft law with teeth

Victories for working people in this country are rare enough that whenever one comes along, it’s doubly worth celebrating. This is certainly the case with a law that just passed in Chicago, which makes it much harder for your boss to steal from you.

As Salon’s Josh Eidelson reports, wage theft is shockingly common in this country, and it “encompasses a range of offenses” which include “unpaid overtime and hourly rates below the minimum wage.” Eidelson cites these statistics from a recent study:

Two-thirds (68 percent) of the workers reported experiencing some form of wage theft in the past week. Researchers calculated that out of an already-low average $339 in weekly income, low-wage workers each lose an average of $51 weekly in wages they earned but never received. That adds up to over $56 million per week among workers in the country’s three largest cities.

These kinds of abuses long been illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But for decades, Grover Norquist’s plan to shrink the government down to the size where he can drown it in the bathtub has been proceeding along smashingly, and unfortunately, no one is around to enforce the law anymore:

A 2012 report from the Progressive States Network noted that the ratio of federal Department of Labor enforcement agents to U.S. workers has fallen from one for every 11,000 in 1941, to one for every 141,000 today. When state labor agents are factored in, the authors found “less than 15 percent of the total enforcement coverage workers enjoyed decades ago.”

Chicago’s new law says that businesses convicted of wage theft could have their licenses revoked. Experts say that ultimately, how effective the law is will depend on whether unions and other low-wage workers are well-organized enough to use them. But it’s another tool available to them, and it’s always good to have more of those. Besides, the business community tends to scream bloody murder about these kinds of measures, and that is always a good sign.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee