Don’t let Baker legalize wage theft

Provision he included in supp budget would do just that

CHARLES HAS BEEN the top sales employee for a dozen consecutive years at the central Massachusetts car dealership where he works. He has a passion and a talent for connecting people with the right vehicle, making sure each sale is a match of personality, desire, and budget. He loves his job.

It’s too bad his employer has cheated him out of tens of thousands of dollars.

Charles (not his real name) is one of hundreds of plaintiffs in dozens of lawsuits across Massachusetts seeking wages they have been owed for years. Salespeople like Timmons – whether they work at an auto dealership or a mattress store – generally are paid a 100 percent commission-based salary. However, state law is clear – at a minimum, employees must be paid time-and-a-half for overtime and their work on Sundays and holidays.

It was affirmed this past spring when the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Sullivan v. Sleepy’s that the mattress company must pay its workers premium pay. The company settled for $3.9 million shortly after the opinion was handed down. Undeterred, big businesses, including the Colonial Automotive Group, persist in their refusal to pay employees for the long hours they work.

There are thousands of employees in Massachusetts in the same situation. The wage theft creates hardships on the workers and their families. Their communities suffer because they have less money to spend at local mom and pop businesses. And the entire Commonwealth suffers with reduced tax revenues.

And now Gov. Charlie Baker wants to make it worse. He snuck into a supplemental budget filed last month a provision that would cut these employees out of the overtime statute. Even worse, and very possibly unconstitutional, he proposed making it retroactive for three years.

That means Charles, already suffering financially despite being an outstanding employee, is not only losing future earnings but, under the Baker proposal, stands to have cash taken out of his wallet that he has already earned.

It’s a cynical and outrageous move by the governor, but it is not surprising. He has been the recipient of thousands of dollars in political donations from car and furniture dealers. Jordan’s Furniture, Kelly Automotive Group, and Cardi’s Furniture executives have all given generously to Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. It’s no surprise they want something in return.

If this is truly a public policy priority for the administration, then they should file the matter as a stand-alone bill, which would get the same treatment as thousands of other pieces of legislation. It should be assigned to a committee, have a transparent and fair public hearing with both sides able to testify about the merits of the bill, and eventually debate on the floor of the House and Senate.

Instead, supplemental spending bills are almost always fast-tracked. The overwhelming likelihood is the measure will be voted on in both the House and the Senate in the next few weeks. The employers have been withholding wages in their accounts for years, and the lawmakers may fatten their pockets in weeks. Where’s the equity in that?

Meet the Author

Philip Gordon

Managing partner, Gordon Law Group LLP
Massachusetts has some champions among elected officials who have recognized wage theft for the public scourge that it is. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, for example, has strongly been cracking down on wage theft in the construction trades for years. Her office has helped reclaim millions of dollars in earnings illegally withheld from workers. She has also fined these bad actors more than $1.2 million.

Massachusetts has led proudly on so many issues on worker protections that it’s inconceivable the Legislature will go along with Baker’s plan to legalize wage theft. That’s why the governor tried to sneak it in an omnibus spending bill, and that’s exactly why he must be stopped.

Philip Gordon is the managing partner of Gordon Law Group LLP in Boston.