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January 19, 2013 4:16 PM A victory for labor in Chicago: a wage theft law with teeth

By Kathleen Geier

Victories for working people in this country are rare enough that whenever one comes along, it’s doubly worth celebrating. This is certainly the case with a law that just passed in Chicago, which makes it much harder for your boss to steal from you.

As Salon’s Josh Eidelson reports, wage theft is shockingly common in this country, and it “encompasses a range of offenses” which include “unpaid overtime and hourly rates below the minimum wage.” Eidelson cites these statistics from a recent study:

Two-thirds (68 percent) of the workers reported experiencing some form of wage theft in the past week. Researchers calculated that out of an already-low average $339 in weekly income, low-wage workers each lose an average of $51 weekly in wages they earned but never received. That adds up to over $56 million per week among workers in the country’s three largest cities.

These kinds of abuses long been illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But for decades, Grover Norquist’s plan to shrink the government down to the size where he can drown it in the bathtub has been proceeding along smashingly, and unfortunately, no one is around to enforce the law anymore:

A 2012 report from the Progressive States Network noted that the ratio of federal Department of Labor enforcement agents to U.S. workers has fallen from one for every 11,000 in 1941, to one for every 141,000 today. When state labor agents are factored in, the authors found “less than 15 percent of the total enforcement coverage workers enjoyed decades ago.”

Chicago’s new law says that businesses convicted of wage theft could have their licenses revoked. Experts say that ultimately, how effective the law is will depend on whether unions and other low-wage workers are well-organized enough to use them. But it’s another tool available to them, and it’s always good to have more of those. Besides, the business community tends to scream bloody murder about these kinds of measures, and that is always a good sign.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Steve on January 19, 2013 4:51 PM:

    "Chicago’s new law says that businesses convicted of wage theft could have their licenses revoked."

    Thereby putting them out of business and putting the very people the law is designed to protect out on the street.

    The Law of Unintended Consequences is never your friend.

  • c u n d gulag on January 19, 2013 4:57 PM:

    *Sigh...*
    I'm getting old.

    For you younger readers, every major newspaper once had a "Labor" column.
    They talked about issues like this, and other things that affect WORKERS!

    NOT a "Business" column, or section.

    LABOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    If I ever see that again, I'll feel like this country is heading back in the right direction.

    THIS, from Chicago, is a nice start.
    NEXT!!!

  • Walker on January 19, 2013 6:04 PM:

    Thereby putting them out of business and putting the very people the law is designed to protect out on the street.

    And because consumer demand still exists, opening the way for a new business to form that does not steal wages (or allowing a competitor to expand its business).

    Supply-side economics is a delusional fantasy.

  • dave on January 19, 2013 6:07 PM:

    Interesting that the Mayor, who is in getting tons of bad press because of his decision to get rid of a union contractor at the airport in favor of a non-union campaign donor who pays his workers four dollars an hour less, felt pressure to sign this bill. He's getting more and more bad attention at the airport, so needed to do something to help his image.