Big win for labor in Chicago to end "wage theft"

By a unanimous vote on Thursday, Chicago’s City Council passed one of the strongest “wage theft” laws in the United States. The move was hailed by labor activists, who’ve long complained that wage theft — not paying workers what they’re legally owed — is one of the easiest crimes to get away with.

“Now the bosses are going to know that the workers have rights, too,” said Maria Garcia, a member of the labor group Arise Chicago, which spearheaded the campaign to pass the law. Interviewed in Spanish, Garcia said she’d experienced wage theft at both of the past two restaurants where she’d worked.

“Wage theft” encompasses a range of offenses. Garcia said that in her case, it had included unpaid overtime and hourly rates below the minimum wage. The term was popularized by labor activists seeking to stir moral outrage at the all-too common issue: “Wage theft” suggests that refusing to pay wages that workers have earned is a form of robbery, rather than a mere accounting dispute. Recent years have seen increasing traction for campaigns to strengthen wage theft penalties and remedies. Those efforts have also inspired a counter-attack: Last year, Florida Republicans and big businesses pushed a bill that would have overridden local wage theft measures. “We believe the existing court system is the best place for these claims,” a spokesperson for the Florida Retail Federation told the Huffington Post.

There’s serious money at stake. In 2008, the National Employment Law Project and a group of advocates and academics talked to around 4,000 low-wage workers in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. 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. Read the entire article by Josh Eidelson at SALON.com.