The issue of wage theft

graphic: Caroline Smith

graphic: Caroline Smith

Wage theft is real. And it’s just what it sounds like—the withholding of wages that a person rightfully earned. While any worker can fall victim to this crime, it is most likely to happen to immigrants—especially those whose status in the US is unauthorized. It is a more common, more systematic, and equally criminal version of robbery in its traditional form. It is so common and so systematic, in fact, that it has manifested itself right here in Princeton.

One example of this is Nassau Street’s Cheeburger Cheeburger branch. A short time before its closing, it was the site of protests led by workers’ rights activists, and was being sued by at least one employee. According to NJ.com, workers filed complaints against the fast food chain’s locations in Princeton, Hamilton, and Lawrence, claiming that they had not been paid overtime, and alleging that they had not been properly compensated for injuries that occurred while on the job. Among the victims of the Cheeburger Cheeburger wage crime were PHS students and their parents.

Wage theft can fall anywhere along a spectrum from not paying workers at all to paying them less than they are owed. Besides integrity, humanity, and decency, wage theft also violates federal and state law. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. New Jersey mandates that its workers be paid at least $8.38. Overtime pay—which is one and a half times usual pay—kicks in after a workweek exceeding 40 hours.

According to the United States Department of Labor, “The Wage and Hour Division (WHD) enforces some of our nation’s most comprehensive labor laws. When we find violations, we often recover unpaid wages on behalf of employees.” Wage theft is most common in sectors that tend to pay workers near minimum wage, such as domestic employment (housekeepers, nannies, etc.), and the restaurant and construction industries. Low-income and undocumented immigrants make up a significant portion of the nation’s service workforce, and New Jersey is one of the most extreme cases. Researchers at the Pew Center discovered that 8.2 percent of the state’s labor force lacks proper documentation, making it the fourth highest concentration in the country. A study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 41 percent of Latino immigrants surveyed in the South reported having been victims of wage theft. Some cities reported as much as twice that.

Although US labor laws apply to any worker regardless of their immigration status, fear, threats, or a lack of knowledge often keep them from reporting crimes. For instance, they may worry that the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security are interconnected, and that if they were to turn in their employer they would risk deportation. Employers can then exploit this misconception by threatening to notify immigration authorities of the worker’s undocumented status if the employee reports wage theft. Finally, and this is a potential issue for any worker no matter their immigration status, it may not be clear to a wage theft victim how to handle the crime—or they may not realize that it is a crime at all.

History shows that there are always going to be employers out there who want to take advantage of their workers. That’s why the Labor Department has a responsibility to inform workers of their rights. Employees must know to file a wage claim, by email or in person, with a Labor Department official. And above all, workers must know that they are entitled to the wages they’ve earned regardless of who they are, where they’ve been, or what their immigration status is.

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