Wage theft part two

by Eric Ginsburg

I rarely go to the movies, but everyone has been telling me I need to see The Avengers. Generally my friends provide good advice, so I finally went last week, laughing periodically through the far-too-long saga.

As I walked out of the theater and turned my phone back on, I realized I had missed several calls and texts from two different friends. Both were dealing with situations at work that, despite some significant differences, boiled down to wage theft.

It’s been a few weeks since my cover story on wage theft came out [“Wage theft: Is the boss’ hand in your wallet?”; May 30, 2012], and the calls have continued to pour in from friends and strangers. I am more than willing to share what I learned from researching the article, but it usually isn’t much help.

Even when people realize what’s happening to them is illegal, there isn’t much they can do about it. The legal process is slow, and even if the employee can wait, lawyers are often unable to take the case because adequate compensation isn’t guaranteed. If workers are still at the job, they are often too scared of retaliation.

I interviewed countless people while researching wage theft — the illegal underpayment or nonpayment of a worker’s promised wages — most of whom I didn’t include in the article.

When I was interviewing someone for the article at Tate Street Coffee, the person sitting next to us leaned over and said his close friend was never paid at a restaurant job in town. After the article ran, I heard from people working in a variety of trades and industries who were never paid for their labor either.

I’ve heard stories about a team of construction workers, migrant farmers or bartenders who were never paid in full or at all. At this point the stories have started to run together. Most of them have the same ending: No claim was filed with the labor department, employers didn’t pay up and the workers gave up, frustrated and feeling hopeless.

What all of the stories share, regardless of how small or egregious, is that the employers felt empowered to deny their employees payment and counted on their workers to take it lying down.

There are all sorts of reasons bosses break the law by not paying workers, but they wouldn’t do it unless they thought they could get away with it. In some cases I’ve heard, workers considered sticking by each other and confronting their employer together — a tactic recommended by labor lawyers and others with experience dealing with cases like these.

Yet frequently employers are able to divide and conquer employees. Some employees get a raise, or are paid back wages or convinced to feel bad for their boss. And they give up.

The story doesn’t have to end there, but it often does. With systemic patterns of abuse in certain industries, workers sometimes end up feeling like it is just par for the course. Many people I’ve talked to experienced wage theft at multiple jobs.

Each time an employer successfully cheats an employee out of their wages, it makes it easier for the abuse to grow — and why wouldn’t it? If someone can not pay their employee and still sleep at night, why would they settle for paid labor in the future?

Wage theft is far from the only way that employers exploit their workers, and it’s far from the only aspect of work where employ ees feel hopeless. Some employers take advantage of their workers any way they can and are never held accountable.

It doesn’t have to be this way. North Carolina has a history of being notoriously anti-worker, but these problems extend far beyond our state boundaries and can be found anywhere profit is prioritized over everything else.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have faith that if people stick together instead of resigning themselves to hopelessness and individualism there is much that can be done. Neither of my friends who called me that night has figured out what to do yet, but they are both talking to their co-workers, which is the first step.