Workers losing millions to wage theft

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

If you have followed this column you know I’ve often written about workers’ wages: Fair wages, a living wage, gender wage disparity. I address the subject of wages frequently for three reasons.

First, wages are what most working people exclusively rely upon to provide the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families. Second, nearly every day I come in contact with good and decent people who are underpaid for the hard work they do, and who as a result struggle to cover the cost of those basic necessities not just month-to-month but day-to-day. Finally, the causes of this are deliberate policies and programs that have resulted in the massive upward redistribution of wealth in the United States over the past 30-plus years, leaving working people to bear an ever-greater economic burden while the real value of their paychecks shrinks.

And yet that’s not the whole story. Exacerbating this unsustainable economic model is the fact that we know that there has been a resurgence of wage theft, which now constitutes a frequent, deliberate strategy by employers to steal money from working people. Wage theft can occur in several different ways. For example, failing to pay earned overtime, paying less than the applicable minimum wage, charging exorbitant fees to cash payroll checks, or requiring an employee to perform work outside his or her job classification. These practices and others all have one primary objective: To steal wages from workers.

An investigation by the Economic Policy Institute verified that in 2012 more than $933 million was recovered from wage theft. Most victims of wage theft never report the theft to the government and never sue, so in 2012 the actual amount of wage theft was much higher. To put it in perspective, the EPI found that according to FBI records for that same year the total value of property taken in robberies of all kinds (including bank, residential, convenience store, gas station and street robberies) was just under $341 million. When we realize wage theft is nearly triple all other robberies nationally, we know we face a critical legal and moral problem.

A bill currently making its way through the California state Senate seeks to eliminate one form of wage theft specifically aimed at the state’s agricultural workers. Existing California law exempts agricultural workers from many workplace protections, including portions of the requirement that an employer pay overtime wages for hours worked in excess of those set by statute within a designated period. Assembly Bill 1066 would eliminate that exemption by gradually reducing (between 2019 and 2022) the number of hours agricultural workers must work in order to receive overtime. AB1066 would be a small but significant step toward curbing wage theft in California and ensuring that workers are paid fairly for work performed.

Those who stand to benefit from wage theft have rallied to oppose AB1066. Corporate farmers and others who have for decades profited off the backs of their workers call “foul” at any effort to interfere with what they perceive as their entitlement to exploitation. I’ve even recently read a prominent blogger drag out the “there’s no overtime if there are no jobs” red herring. That sort of rhetoric betrays a condescending view toward workers and a lack of concern for fair and equal treatment.

Farm workers are deserving of our deep respect and gratitude for performing grueling physical work that many of us take for granted when the food they produce makes its way to our dinner tables. We should praise and support their work ethic and perseverance, their determination to overcome long-standing prejudice, and their right to receive fair and equitable wages.

Farm workers have families to support just like other workers. Farm workers contribute to our local, state and national economies just like other workers. With the passage of AB1066, they will finally be able to earn overtime just like other workers.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: August 19, 2016