Surprise! Low-wage Workers Are More Likely To Be Victims Of Wage Theft

The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, November 2012

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Once the purview of teenagers looking to enter the job market, minimum wage jobs have become the only option for far too many Americans. About half of those earning minimum wage is over the age of 25, and more women than men are working at minimum wage or lower. More than five percent of the American workforce is making the national minimum wage of $7.75 per hour... or less. And these strikes at notoriously poor wage payers like McDonalds and Walmart are about more than just renumeration. They're about treating American workers with dignity and respect.

The obvious problem low-wage workers face is inadequate pay; that is why their first demand is $15 dollars per hour. But they also want a say in their work, hence the second demand, for a union. This dimension often goes unnoticed in the conversation, but the experience of working low-wage jobs is just as important as what they pay. These workers are fighting not just for higher pay but also for a labor market that brings them an element of dignity.

A recent survey of New York City fast-food workers found that 84 percent of them had experienced wage theft — the withholding of pay for work-related time for which they should be compensated. For example, workers may have to stay late after their shift ends or show up before it starts to count a register but their employers do not pay them for that time. Or bosses may take money out of workers' paychecks for work-related expenses or fees that were not disclosed to the worker at hiring. Or workers may not get access to promised breaks or may be required to work overtime without compensation. These abuses are particularly pernicious because low-wage workers typically do not have the time or resources to challenge their bosses legally.

Low-wage workers also face the hassle of inconsistent and random work schedules. Bosses often require employees to be on call and have to phone in to check whether they are needed that day. Not knowing their schedule in advance makes it incredibly difficult for workers to do anything else, from arranging child care to working a second job for additional income. For those having trouble making ends meet, this kind of uncertainty is difficult to manage.

Workers can even find it difficult to get paid in a way that is not abusive. Some low-wage employers are moving to remunerate workers with paid debit cards that carry high and opaque fees, even to do basic things like check balances.

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