Chicago is taking steps to actually enforce laws against businesses paying workers less than they are legally required to, a practice that remains de facto legal almost everywhere else in America.
“Wage theft” is the term for a variety of offenses in which low-status workers are deprived of a portion of their pay, either by being made to work off the clock, not receiving overtime or holiday pay required by law, or simply paid at a lower rate, or for fewer hours, than they actually earned. There’s a lot of different ways a company can cheat its employees out of their rightful pay, and many of them are standard practice in certain industries.
I’ve been a victim of wage theft myself. At my first job waiting tables, the owners of the restaurant paid us the federal minimum of $2.13/hr, rather than the applicable state minimum of $2.38. It may not seem like much, but when that’s all you earn, that amount makes a big difference. At other hourly jobs, I’ve had bosses tell me to clock out for a break and then keep working, I’ve had suspicious discrepancies in my paychecks, I’ve had companies “forget” that we get time-and-a-half for working on Christmas. Friends of mine who’ve worked similar jobs have similar stories, some even worse.
It’s an all-too-common story, as businesses strive to be “lean” and “efficient” to increase profit margins at any cost, and as we increasingly empower a professional executive class that lacks any sense of connection to the actual work being done at the bottom of their business model. With Department of Labor enforcement at a mere fraction of what it once was, why shouldn’t businesses steal from their employees? As long as the laws are unenforced or toothlessly punished, it’s profit without risk.
Taking a stand against this trend is the city of Chicago, which has recently passed a stringent law stating that any business engaging in wage theft risks losing its license. As Salon reports:
Under Chicago’s new law, companies convicted of wage theft could have their business licenses revoked. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, no close pal of labor, signed on as a sponsor and has pledged to sign it (some of the same groups that have been collaborating with the mayor’s office on the wage theft bill have meanwhile been organizing furiously against the city’s decision to bring in a different janitorial contractor at O’Hare airport, which could eliminate 300 union jobs).
The major showdown over the new law occurred in committee hearings prior to Thursday’s vote. Adam Kader, the Workers Center Director for Arise Chicago, said supporters mobilized a “major show of force” from workers and community activists. Kader said opponents brought “a significant show of force by all of the major industry lobbyists in the state of Illinois.” But after agreeing to a change in the bill’s language, specifying that businesses could have their licenses revoked only after willful or egregious violations, labor was able to win over the council’s holdouts — though not the business lobbyists.
This is a major step forward for everyone in Chicago who works for a living, but that’s one city. Ask yourself: is wage theft still functionally legal, i.e. totally unenforced, where you live? Where you work? Are you still telling yourself that’s just the way things go and there’s nothing you can do about it?