If these shenanigans can happen right under the noses of U.S. senators, where else are they happening?
We'll never know until we get more cops on the beat.
I'm talking about wage theft. That's the catch-all term for when employers pay their workers less than they legally owe them — by, for example, forcing them to work off the clock, paying below minimum wage or misclassifying them as independent contractors.
Wage theft is not a sexy crime. It rarely makes front-page news, even as it harms so many Americans living paycheck to paycheck. We don't know how prevalent it is, only how often it is discovered — which is highly dependent on how much the government invests in enforcement.
Last year, Labor Department investigators found $247 million in back wages owed to more than 240,000 workers. That's more than $1,000 stolen from each worker, on average, or the equivalent of about three weeks' payfor a typical maid, janitor or cashier.
Every once in a while, there's a chance to capture the public's imagination on this issue — such as this week, when it turned out that even in the hallowed halls of the Senate, hundreds of low-wage workers had been shortchanged. For six years.
This case involves Senate cafeteria workers, some of whom were so poorly paid that they were homeless, on public assistance or, in one case,moonlighting as a stripper to make ends meet. For about a year, they staged a series of demonstrations to demand a living wage.
In December, it looked as if they'd finally secured it. These employees work for a private company on a government contract, which was up for renewal. After great public pressure, senators made sure that the new contractincluded healthy raises.
Victory at last.
Immediately after the contract was signed, though, the company found a loophole.
See, the wages listed in the new contract were tied to specific occupation titles. The employer, Restaurant Associates, quietly began demotingworkers into lower-wage titles — from "cook" to "food service worker," for example — which meant workers would be denied the raises they were promised.
Workers' titles changed, but their duties didn't. This turned out to be a potential violation of federal law, which narrowly defines job descriptions for service occupations in government contracts.
A complaint was filed by Good Jobs Nation, an organization that has been trying to unionize low-wage federal contract workers. This week, the Labor Department announced the findings of its resulting investigation.
It determined that Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor, Personnel Plus, must pay 674 workers $1,008,302 in back wages.
One funny thing about this finding: The Senate cafeteria workers knew they'd been underpaid. But they hadn't realized just how underpaid they were, and for how very long.
Restaurant Associates had been shortchanging workers not only since the new contract was signed in December. According to investigators, it had been improperly classifying employees, not paying them for all the time they worked, and failing to pay required health and welfare benefits since at least 2010.
In a statement, Restaurant Associates attributed the violations to "administrative technicalities related to our Associates' evolving day-to-day work responsibilities." It said that the company had "corrected the classifications." (Workers I've interviewed said that at least nine employees still dispute their classifications.)
That hundreds of current and former Senate workers will soon receive back pay is a good thing, indeed. But what about other workers who have been victimized — who don't know their rights, who fear retaliation if they pipe up, and who don't have third-party groups and the congressional press corps paying attention?
"Most workplaces are not the Senate cafeteria," said David Weil, the administrator of the Labor Department division that ran the investigation. "I'm worried about workplaces where workers are really alone, where they're subjected to jaw-dropping violations of basic labor standards."
Today, fewer than 1,000 Labor Department investigators are looking into wage and hour law violations. That's fewer than there were when Jimmy Carter was president, even though the U.S. workforce has grown more than 50 percent since then and workplace arrangements have gotten far more complicated.
In each of the past three years, the Obama administration has requested funding for more investigators; each year, Congress has denied the request.
Which is peculiar. Enforcement should be a bipartisan issue. If politicians truly care about inequality and fairness, reducing reliance on public assistance, making sure that the system isn't "rigged" against the little guy, and, for that matter, "law and order," they should start by enforcing the laws already on the books — and by making sure hard-working Americans get every cent to which they are entitled.
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