A nine-month investigation by POLITICO found that workers are not protected from wage theft by their employers. Although the government is supposed to enforce minimum-wage violations, six states – including Georgia – have no investigators to handle these violations.  Twenty-six additional states have fewer than 10 investigators. Because of these limited resources, most cases of wage theft go unreported. Fully 41 percent of the wages that employers are ordered to pay back to their workers still aren’t recovered.  What this means for workers is that shady bosses and companies are keeping the money that is rightfully theirs.

Without enforcement, long-term patterns of abuse take root in certain service industries, especially restaurants, landscaping and cleaning.  Advocates for lowest-wage workers describe families facing eviction and experiencing hunger for lack of money that is owed to them. And, nationally, the failure to enforce wage laws exacerbates a level of income inequality that is higher now than it has been for the past century.

The six states that have no minimum wage investigators are all in the South.  Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana all have state labor agencies, but workers can’t file minimum wage or overtime claims with these agencies.  Instead, they must file with the United States Department of Labor, which takes cases only very selectively and for broader classes of people. Workers who are denied their overtime or minimum wage have three options to pursue recovery of their wages: they can file with their state’s labor agency if they live in a state that enforces wage claims, they can file with the federal Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division, or they can hire a private attorney, like an Atlanta employment attorney, who can file a complaint in federal court on their behalf.  

Congress has been looking at raising minimum wages, as have many states.  But in doing so, Congress has failed to evaluate how to enforce these new laws.  Congress needs to make it harder for companies to evade enforcement by continuously changing corporate identities and also needs to ensure that there are a sufficient number of investigators available to handle complaints and violations.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown commented on POLITICO’s findings saying “wages are far too low to begin with, so when money is stolen right out of workers’ paychecks, we have to have effective tools in place to get that money back. But wage theft is just one part of the problem that hard work simply doesn’t pay off the way it should. And that’s true for all workers – whether they punch a time clock, swipe a badge, make a salary or earn tips – they’re working too hard for too little.”

Thanks to our friends and contributors from Barrett & Farahany for their insight into wage theft