Catherine Rampell’s new economics and business blog at the Washington Post, Rampage, is excellent (and boy was the New York Times stupid to let her get away). Take, for instance, her latest column, which is about wage theft. The human-interest reporting is very good:

Take Ashley Cathey, 25, a six-year McDonald’s employee who participated in a national one-day strike last December. A couple of months later, she got a 25-cent raise, to $8 an hour from $7.75. But something about her next paycheck looked fishy: Her pay seemed short given her raise and new, longer hours. She usually works overnight, and in recent months her shifts have frequently stretched to 12 or 14 hours because her Memphis restaurant has been short-staffed. (Perhaps because its wages are still too low to retain enough employees.)

She asked a friend who is a manager to print out her time sheet and noticed that someone had clocked her out for breaks she never took. Other co-workers spotted hours shaved from their time sheets, too. When employees brought this to the attention of a more senior boss, they were told the wrongly subtracted hours would appear in their next paychecks. Meanwhile, the helpful manager who had printed out the time sheets was reprimanded for sharing official time records with workers and told that he’d be fired if he did it again, Cathey said. Now Cathey keeps a personal record of the hours she clocks in and out.

“I never paid attention before,” she told me in a phone interview. She suspects that someone has been doctoring her hours for years, but she doesn’t want to endanger her manager friend’s job by asking for help obtaining proof. Even without proof she is convinced: “They’re hiding something, obviously,” she said.

Even better is Rampell’s putting this story in a systemic context — multiple McDonald’s and Domino’s stores have recently settled wage theft cases with the New York state attorney general, and there are multi-state class action suits against McDonald’s afoot — and her bold policy prescription to crack down on wage theft, which is jail time against the perpetrators. Rampell argues that the wage thieves often get away with their crimes, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, as she notes, the crime often goes undetected. Also, as she doesn’t point out, but I will, the victims are often among the most vulnerable and least powerful workers in our economy: low-wage workers and undocumented immigrants. In addition, we’ve defunded our government’s administrative capacity to regulate, so which makes it difficult to investigate wage theft complaints even when they’re reported. Finally, says Rampell:

The consequences for wage theft are rare, small and not particularly deterring. Even when government investigators pursue these complaints, for example, criminal charges are rarely filed.

Harsher penalties, including prison time, should be on the table more often when willful wrongdoing is proved. Thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s home can go to jail; the same should be true for thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s paycheck.

Though some people might argue that hard time for the wage thieves is a harsh penalty, I’m not one of them. We call this practice “theft” because that is what it is. Just as anti-choicers who refer to abortion as “murder” should either embrace the logic of their own argument and support prison time for women who undergo abortions, or abandon the use of the “murder” label altogether when applied to abortion, the opponents of wage theft should stand firmly in favor of prison sentences for those convicted of this sleazy, bottom-feeding crime. Low-wage workers have a world of problems; a society that lets the theft of their hard-earned dollars go lightly punished, or not punished at all, should not be one of them.

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