wage theft

by Crystal Easom

It was two weeks into my first job when the rose-tinted glasses fell and I worked out what my weekly salary translated to by hour. My employer was paying me about $1.50 per hour that I was on the clock, with a generous estimate that for every hour of physically-demanding, skilled work that I was contracted for I earned about $3. Now, I hadn’t been blind entering into this job. I realized the discrepancy but had been assured of reasonable hours that would reflect the pay, room and board, and close mentorship; it was supposed to be a low-stress, rejuvenating college job. I signed the contract and started work.

The hours were far more extensive than I had been led to believe, the risk and threat of liability far higher, and a high member in the organization operated with a practice of spiritual manipulation and emotional abuse against the staff. His stringent financial practices reduced safety and incidents began to occur. Between the abusive practice and the contract, I felt utterly trapped. I couldn’t have seen a way out if the door had slammed into me on my way past.

I’m certain the organization had worked out the legality of the contract, but that doesn’t mean it felt just to me. That summer destroyed my health, my confidence, my self-worth, and my hope. Even though I had just graduated at the top of my class with awards and a wide breadth of skills, I felt like the job market had decried me as worthless. For the advantages that I had entered my adulthood with, I couldn’t find a minimum wage job; even part-time minimum wage felt beyond my reach. As I bled out my heart and my energy that summer, I also lost my hope.

Employers are powerful. They can encourage their employees or they can decimate their spirits.

Imagine discovering your work was vastly underpaid in comparison to your majority coworker. Imagine relying on your tips only to be informed that your employer now requires a portion of the tipped income. Imagine you have reported harassment or discrimination in hope of a safe workplace and your employer has retaliated against you, impeding your ability to work at all. Imagine you’re required by your employer to work unclocked overtime. Imagine every effort for your employer were to be cast utterly aside as your loyalty is returned for disingenuous practices.  Imagine you become another statistic, another victim of wage theft.

“If one tallied all of the losses suffered by victims of robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined, the figure wouldn’t even approach what is taken from hard-working American’s pockets by employers who violate the nation’s labor laws.  And the victims are generally the most vulnerable among us.”  (Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America, 163)

Who are these vulnerable? They are the invisible of our population: the immigrant who does not know the wage and hour laws; the nonnative whose broken English marks them as a target; the illiterate employee, first failed by the education system and now failed by their employer who takes advantage of their inability to read their contract; the illegal immigrant who is pleased to work for anything, forfeiting just recompense; the agricultural worker who is paid off the books, when they are paid at all; the young retail employee who is convinced that the practices they experience are the norm.

Men and women are trapped in jobs that do not pay them fairly. They cannot fathom leaving a job if doing so would leave them without means to meet their living expenses… Thus they remain, bleeding their labor for insufficient return. Their past wages condition them to presume that unjust figure is indeed what their work is worth, rendering them both vulnerable to future unjust wages and crushing their self-esteem.

This injustice doesn’t hit just one demographic; predatory employment practices strike every industry of employment. These men and women who have been cheated by their employers are in need of hope: hope that the injustice isn’t the condition of life, hope that they have worth as a member of the work force, hope of receiving just recompense, and – as we all do – hope that the Creator of the world is a just God.

The Department of Labor is scheduled to establish new definitions to ensure justice for exempt employees concerning minimum wage, overtime pay, and reliability in scheduling. When the injustice does occur, most victims of wage theft would be unable to afford to approach a private lawyer but can come to legal clinics. Sometimes the mere presence of a lawyer standing beside a client by writing the employer is sufficient to convince the employer to pay fair wages.

God established provisions for the poor and the alien in his law; allow me to exhort you to connect with your church’s social ministries, a community legal aid clinic, or an organization like Interfaith Worker Justice (iwj.org) and go and do likewise.

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