Meaningful wage theft laws needed to protect workers

Members of the Chinese Progressive Association staged a “wage theft” protest on Winter Street on Dec. 19.

By Al Vega

The Massachusetts Legislature needs to finally pass a wage theft bill (H.1033 / S.999) to protect Massachusetts workers and their ability to support their families.  Since 2009 I have worked with the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH): a nonprofit organization based in Fields Corner that strives to ensure that all workers earn their living and return home alive and well. I have seen first-hand how wage theft impacts those who can afford this mistreatment the least.

Wage theft is one of the most common and troubling problems we hear of from the workers we help.  Wage theft occurs when workers put in their hours and employers refuse to pay them for work completed. This can happen when a retail worker is misclassified as a “manager” when they are obviously an employee, when hourly wage healthcare workers are forced to work extra hours because of mismanagement and are asked to only record their “set hours” worked, and most outrageously, when construction workers put in their time and contractors simply refuse to pay. They are stealing the ability of workers to afford food, shelter and other basic necessities.  

MassCOSH has been working with Massachusetts worker centers, labor unions and organizations through the “Good Jobs, Strong Communities” coalition convened by Community Labor United. This coalition is organizing to restore fairness, promote employer accountability, and get the Massachusetts wage theft bill and municipal ordinances passed, in order to help reclaim lost wages for workers who have fallen victim to predatory contractors and employers.

Due to a lack of enforceable laws, successfully reclaiming stolen wages for victims of wage theft is dishearteningly uncommon. In Massachusetts alone, recent estimates indicate more than $700 million is stolen from workers every year. Bad employers are successfully using subcontracting and outsourcing to dodge responsibility for worker pay and workers’ compensation insurance, and the epidemic has overwhelmed the capacity of existing labor laws and enforcement mechanisms. The promise of a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work is becoming a hollow one.

Predatory contractors and employers take advantage of workers knowing they will have little recourse. In an era of unfathomable income inequality, the Massachusetts legislature must pass, “An Act to Prevent Wage Theft and Promote Employer Accountability (H.1033 / S.999)” this legislative session. 

The bill introduced in January, and previously introduced in the last legislative session, is cosponsored by over 140 legislators.  When and if the bill becomes law, it will hold businesses that contract for labor or services (lead companies) accountable for wage theft violations that are significantly connected to their business activities or operations.

This important legislation will clarify who is ultimately responsible for upholding labor standards, and will also empower the Attorney General with valuable new tools to hold violators fully accountable to recover what is wrongfully taken from workers and the state. Massachusetts workers literally cannot afford to wait for their hard-earned wages any longer.

At a time where corporations and greedy business owners are taking more and more of the economic pie, we must pass this common-sense law so that the system works fairly for all. It is the right and moral thing to do.  

Al Vega is the Director of Policy & Programs for Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.