More tools needed to combat wage theft

MASSACHUSETTS HAS AN epidemic of wage theft. An estimated $700 million in wage theft occurs annually in our state, robbing workers and their families of essential income and the ability to stay afloat financially. That’s also bad news for good employers. It creates an uneven playing field for companies that follow the law and that do right by their workers. Companies abiding by the law are continually undercut by employers who cheat the system.

Wage theft comes in many forms: forcing workers to work off the clock through required breaks or to avoid overtime pay, misclassifying employees as independent contractors to avoid the protections that should cover them (like unemployment and workers comp insurance), writing paychecks that bounce or just not paying workers at all. These cynical practices happen with unacceptable frequency in Massachusetts, and the problem has only gotten worse.

Employers in our state increasingly use subcontracting and outsourcing to dodge responsibility for workers. More and more full-time workers are employed as “temporary” in ways that leave them with few protections. As a state, our existing labor laws and our capacity to enforce them are not keeping pace.

As state legislators, a key part our job is to make Massachusetts a better place to live and work. That’s why we are leading the push for “An Act to Prevent Wage Theft and Promote Employer Accountability,” a bipartisan bill with more than 100 co-sponsors.

It would give the attorney general’s office more tools to hold employers accountable when they violate wage laws, including the ability to bring wage theft cases to court for civil damages and to issue a “stop work order” until wage theft violations are corrected.

Massachusetts needs to make clear that if your business robs from workers through wage theft, there will be consequences.

The consequences of inaction are clear. Tens of thousands of workers are victimized across the Commonwealth every year. Their stories should outrage anyone who believes in basic fairness.

We heard from a fast food worker who came back to work from a brief, unpaid maternity leave only to find the two paychecks she was owed were not there. She was accused of lying, then told the checks were stolen. She was refused payment and finally fired for trying to claim her back wages. It took her two years and the help of a nonprofit workers’ center to finally be paid what she was owed.

We need to take action on wage theft for workers and for good employers, like Gentle Giant Moving in Somerville, a Massachusetts-based business that grew from a small moving company to a $20-million-a-year business with offices in nine states. Gentle Giant has always run its business by the books, finding great success by investing in workers and customer service.

The company’s market share is shrinking, however, because it is being undercut by companies that illegally lower their overhead through wage theft, paying workers under the table, and cheating the system that is meant to protect employees and customers.

Stories like these, from workers and business alike, show that preventing wage theft should not be a partisan issue. It is common sense, and it speaks directly to our values and the basic right of working people to be paid what they’ve been promised and what they have earned.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Attorney General Maura Healey has done a great job prosecuting a number of companies that have engaged in these kinds of unethical practices, but her office has made clear that the Legislature must create additional tools to truly stem the rising tide of wage theft across industries in the Bay State.
Unfortunately, wage theft has become business as usual in Massachusetts. For the sake of our economy and for the businesses who play by the rules, we must take concrete steps now to curb this daily injustice.

Aaron Michlewitz is a state representative from Boston. Sal DiDomenico is a state senator from Everett.

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