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Institute for Policy Studies

Wage Theft: The New American Crime?

Each year, American workers are robbed of far more money in wage theft than bank, convenience store, street, and gas station robberies combined.

By Robert J.S. Ross

Each week, millions of dollars are stolen from American families. The perpetrators act with impunity. There are no arrests, few convictions, and largely meaningless fines.

Many working people are paid less than the legal minimum, not paid for overtime, and deprived of legal protections.

Many working people are paid less than the legal minimum, not paid for overtime, and deprived of legal protections.

What is this crime wave in America? Wage theft.

Many working people are paid less than the legal minimum, not paid for overtime, made to work off the clock, and deprived of legal protections through false classification as independent contractors. If economic losses like these were visited upon big brand retail stores or well-healed neighborhoods, the cry for strict law enforcement would force police chiefs and mayors into rapid response.

A groundbreaking study of low wage industries – including apparel, restaurants, car washes, and construction – found that 26 percent of workers were paid less than minimum wage, 75 percent of those who worked overtime did not receive overtime pay, 25 percent were forced to work before or after their shifts had ended, and a vast majority of this work – 70 percent – was completely “off-the books.”

This 2008 study revealed that the economic losses incurred by wage theft victims are massive.

The economic losses incurred by wage theft victims are massive. 

The authors noted, “Assuming a full-time, full-year work schedule, we estimate that these workers lost an average of $2,634 annually [ $51/week] due to workplace violations, out of total earnings of $17,616. That translates into wage theft of 15 percent of earnings.”

The study was a sample representative of a population of about 1.64 million workers, or 15 percent of the combined workforce of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Let’s do the math: 1.64 million x $51 (per week) is theft of $83.6 million per week and $4.3 billion (yes billion) per year – in just those three cities.

One study estimates that wage theft victims lose 15 percent of their earnings on average.

A crime wave, indeed.

As Ross Eisenbray of the Economic Policy Institute points out, “Wage theft is a far bigger problem than bank robberies, convenience store robberies, street and highway robberies, and gas station robberies combined. According to the Department of Justice, these street crimes amounted to $139 million worth of stolen money in 2012. In the same year, the Department of Labor recovered more than twice that amount – $280 million – in stolen wages.

Enforcing minimum wage and overtime laws is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Labor. Unfortunately, the DOL no longer has adequate capacity to enforce these laws.

The Department of Labor no longer has the capacity to enforce minimum wage and overtime laws.

My study of the apparel industry, for instance, found that the number of investigators in relation to the workforce assigned to Fair Labor Standards Act enforcement had seriously degraded – by about one-third – from the 1950s to around 2000. Likewise, a study conducted by the Brennan Center at New York University Law School found that the number of investigators fell by 14% while the number of establishments covered by the law grew by 114% from 1975-2004.

When faced with a surge in crime, it is not usual American practice to reduce police budgets and trim the number of law enforcement personnel – but that is exactly what has happened in this case.

Given the impasse in Washington, labor activists are gathering momentum to enact local protections. In Boston, Central Labor Council Secretary Rich Rogers said, “We are currently working with the Walsh administration and the Boston City Council to re-constitute the ‘Living Wage’ commission and adopt a strong ‘ Wage Theft’ ordinance in the city of Boston.”

Labor activists around the country are working to enact local protections against wage theft.

According to Darlene Lombos, of Community Labor United (CLU), “The electoral alliance between labor and communities of color, in last year’s election, is continuing to work together to move a working families agenda in Boston.”

CLU is working with City Councilors to draft an ordinance that will more strongly regulate the responsibilities of firms that contract for labor services. Across the city, widespread support for the idea of a “Wage Theft”  campaign is starting to develop.

In the case of wage theft, justice will come when local communities stand with the victims and help them fight back.

  • geonomist

    The Left hollers when bosses steal pay but one hears not a peep form them when government taxes wages. That’s a double standard and not good for justice. It erodes any moral foundation.

    Of course bad bosses should be punished for theft. That goes without saying. But fines and inspectors do not get at the root of the problem.

    Note the victimized workers are low-wage. So raise the minimum wage? Not exactly. Remember, that’s what’s getting violated. Instead, pay workers and everyone an extra income apart from our labor (or capital). That is, we would share society’s surplus.

    What surplus is our common wealth? It’s the worth of Earth. It’s all our spending for land and resources. And it’s trillions of dollars each year. We could share it a la Alaska’s oil dividend or Singapore’s land dividend.

    We could also let “land dues” stand in for most taxes, especially those on wages, and then government would break ranks from business and no longer take what does not belong to them. More at

    • smh

      When we had heavily regulated and taxed capitalism in the post-war era, the largest employer in America was General Motors, and they paid working people what would be, in today’s dollars, about $50 an hour with benefits. Reagan began deregulating and cutting taxes on capitalism in 1981, and today, with more classical “raw capitalism,” what we call “Reaganomics,” or “supply side economics,” our nation’s largest employer is WalMart and they pay around $10 an hour.

      This is how quickly capitalism reorients itself when the brakes of regulation and taxes are removed – this huge change was done in less than 35 years.

      • smh

        Above quote was from a column by Thom Hartmann.

      • geonomist

        You and Thom make sense but if we’re to quit being workers and become fully human, we most lose reliance force – taking and bossing – and instead institute a Citizens Dividend.

  • DHFabian

    What’s new about wage theft? This has been going on at least since the 1980s.

  • viper333

    Economies do not appear in nature–they are created by a society that
    sets the rules for Property rights, Worker rights, provides laws,
    courts, infrastructure and Financial system, etc.etc. Most of our
    ancestors came here because Europe was run by an Oligarchy that took all
    the profits from the labours of the Subjects. They lived in luxury and
    did no work–it was their “Birthright”. So we left to create a better
    fairer economy here.

    But in the 1920’s after back to back tax cuts on the Rich (75% rate
    dropped to 25% by 1925) the economy collapsed because the money was
    pooling at the top again and without a large prosperous middle
    class–economies collapse. So we came up with a Fairer system which
    included high marginal tax rates on extraordinary profits that
    encouraged owners to a share the profits with the workers and reinvest
    in the company (deductible expenses). This worked great as it produced
    the greatest economy the world had ever seen. This redistribution of the
    high profits back into the economy worked great and much of the free
    world copied us. Mexico and Central America did not and remain
    impoverished to this day.

    So what happened –well it was the Politicians (Reagan) who corrupted
    the New Deal tax code and so once again the profits are pooling at the
    top and the middle class is in decline. So in summary they corrupted the
    working economy and we are again heading for a depression–so we need
    to change it back because it has been a failure to the larger
    population–Understand??? They changed it–we want to change it back–
    so husbands can find decent paying jobs , mothers can stay home raising
    children, and our kids can afford college again–understand??? E ”
    Proof??? Graph below of ACTUAL tax rate on the wealthy From 1940’s to
    2010. Yep!- They have been lying to us all.

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