How we investigated wage enforcement at the Illinois Department of Labor (IL)

By Matt Kiefer | August 9, 2017

“There ought to be a law.”

We throw that phrase around casually in our civic discourse. But sometimes a new law passes that doesn’t make a dent in the problem, as reporter Melissa Sanchez found when she looked into the bleak and arduous process of filing a wage theft claim in Illinois.

Long wait times and high dismissal rates are nothing new at the Illinois Department of Labor, where every year thousands of workers file grievances against employers who have allegedly shorted their pay. A 2012 Reporter investigation, “Waiting in Vain”, revealed the average wage theft claim took about seven months to resolve, with 41 percent ending up dismissed.

Five years on, the Reporter followed up on this story to see how things worked out. It took half a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests and several months of delays, denials and appeals before the department handed over all the wage complaint and other operational records we requested.

Our findings: Wait times for wage theft cases had increased to nine months and dismissal rates jumped to 58 percent. The promised reforms didn’t deliver.

To do our analysis, we loaded the records into a Django database, which is handy for sorting, filtering and looking up related records. When calculating case durations and dismissal rates for wage complaints, we narrowed the record set to wage complaints filed in 2014 due to the volume of pending cases in subsequent years that had unknown resolution dates and outcomes. (Other calculations, such as those counting case volume by year, or the total amount of wages claimed, include all available complaint data.)

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Porter County Commissioners setting conflict of interest rules for bidding (IL)

Posted 7/19/2017

The Porter County Board of Commissioners voted in favor of implementing a conflict of interest policy concerning how it hires consultants on Tuesday, and signaled their interest in compiling a responsible bidder policy.

The Commissioners voted 3-0 on first reading for an ordinance to establish the policy that many other states like Indiana have already adopted. Under it, County employees and elected officials would be prohibited from soliciting or accepting gratuities of anything valued at $50 or more from consultants or other parties in contractor agreements, said County Attorney Scott McClure.

McClure said forms of this policy have been put together at the federal level and have trickled down to municipalities. Conflict of interest policies are being required in order to receive matching funds from the federal government that the County would receive for projects through state agencies like the Indiana Department of Transportation, he said.
Commissioner President Jeff Good, R-Center, said that he agrees with the ordinance and not just on the merit that it is being required by the federal government.

“I think it’s just good business,” he said.

“I agree,” said Commissioner Laura Shurr Blaney, D-South.

Next, Marcella Kunstek and Josh Weger of the Indiana, Illinois and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting (IIIFFC) came to give the Commissioners a presentation on reasons they recommend the County adopt a Responsive Bidder Ordinance, or RBO.

The organization has been in existence for 20 years but not until recently have RDOs become a growing trend, Weger said. IIIFFC has helped 14 counties in Indiana, 25 in Illinois and seven in Iowa. The mission is to increase market share for contractors, increase hours for workers and drive value for taxpayers.

“We are here to help you in any way improve the value of public works construction to your taxpayers and government,” Weger told the Commissioners.

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Education and Infrastructure Grow the Economy. Other Proposals Being Debated in Illinois Don’t. (IL)

With the State of Illinois finally having a new budget for the first time in two years, the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute evaluated the economic research on policy measures currently under consideration by state lawmakers.


JULY 19, 2017

Economic and social science research generally finds that investing in K-12 education and postsecondary education- “human capital development”- and investing in infrastructure- “physical capital development”- are the most effective public policies at improving economic growth. Fiscal sustainability through balanced budgets also allows governments to fund these investments and boosts business confidence.

Investing in public education improves the economy.

  • A well-educated workforce raises median wages in a state.
  • An extra year of education increases a worker’s earnings by 7-10%.
  • A 10% increase in spending on public education leads children to complete more schooling and reduces their chances of living in poverty once they hit adulthood by 3.7% on average.
  • In a survey of economics professors and public policy academics from accredited universities in Illinois, 66% say that expanding enrollment in early childhood education programs would improve the state’s employment rate and grow the economy and a majority say the same about raising the share of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree.

Investing in public infrastructure boosts economic growth.

  • For every dollar increase in infrastructure spending, the economy improves by $1.57 on average.
  • 67% of academic studies find that highway spending has positive impacts on the economy.
    Improving an expanding highways, bridges, and public transportation statistically increases the working-age employment rate by increasing connectivity and improving productivity.
  • In a survey of economics professors and public policy academics from accredited universities in Illinois, 79% think Illinois should increase transportation infrastructure investment.

Other policy changes that have been proposed in Illinois have no, mixed, or limited economic impacts.

1. Peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that “right-to-work” laws have no statistical effect on overall employment in a state economy, but research does find that “right-to-work” tends to reduce wages, limit unionization, and redistribute income from workers to owners.

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Wage theft victims have little chance of recouping pay in Illinois (IL)

By Melissa Sanchez and Matt Kiefer
Aug. 9, 2017

Most victims of wage theft in Illinois never see a dime because the system meant to help them isn’t working.

That’s not what labor advocates envisioned in 2010, when the state passed a bill meant to give employees a better chance of recouping stolen wages and to toughen penalties against the employers who stiff them.

The situation, however, has gone from bad to worse for the thousands of mostly low-wage workers who have filed roughly $50 million in wage claims with the state since the measure took full effect in 2014.

Workers who report wage theft now face longer wait times, higher dismissal rates and more red tape, according to a Chicago Reporter review of complaint records and enforcement procedures at the Illinois Department of Labor.

Fewer than 1 in 4 workers recouped wages within a year, the analysis found. The odds are so bad, many labor advocates say workers shouldn’t bother filing a claim.

“The worst that can happen to [employers] is that they can use the workers like a credit card, and pay them months after the claims were first filed,” said Jacob Lesniewski, an associate professor of social work at Dominican University, who has studied wage theft.

The Reporter’s review of wage enforcement records found:

  • More claims are dismissed: 58 percent in 2014, up from 41 percent in 2010. The state doesn’t track why cases are dismissed, but most are scrapped early, before workers get a chance to have the merits of the cases weighed.
  • Cases now take an average of nearly nine months to resolve, about two months longer than in 2010. If a case ends up going to a hearing, resolving it could take well over a year.
  • Even when workers win their cases, they might not be paid. Only about 1 in 10 of nearly 500 cases forwarded to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for collection resulted in payment, and collection can take years.
  • The state has let dozens of deadbeat employers off the hook by allowing them to settle claims early in the enforcement process, avoiding formal violations or financial penalties.

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McHenry County Board approves prevailing wage, ending three years of protest votes

June 26, 2017

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board approved the state prevailing wage rates, ending a three-year streak of casting a symbolic protest vote against them.

Board members voted, 19-3, to adopt the wage schedule, which requires local governments to pay workers hired for public construction projects a specific wage set by the Illinois Department of Labor.

Audience members, many of whom were union members and local residents who came to encourage a vote to approve, applauded when the final vote was tallied.

The County Board since 2014 had voted against prevailing wage, while being careful to instruct county staff to follow the law.

Board member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, said voting against prevailing wage sends a negative message to the community, and disputed the notion that the wages are responsible for the county’s sky-high property taxes.

“I think in the end, the overall benefits well outweigh the negatives that some may perceive regarding prevailing wage. It’s the right thing to do – we know it’s the law. It’s the right thing to do,” Kurtz said.

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Illinois legislature passes groundbreaking anti-wage theft bill, measure will help economy, taxpayers, workers and businesses

07 Jun, 2017, 14:36 ET

SPRINGFIELD, Ill., June 7, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Illinois legislature has passed groundbreaking legislation (SB1720) to address wage theft in Illinois. Wage theft is estimated to cost American workers over $50 billion per year and news reports have shown Illinois is a very difficult and complex state for workers seeking to recoup stolen wages. The legislation prohibits businesses who violate state law on the payment of wages from receiving taxpayer-funded state contracts for at least five years. SB1720 also increases the penalty for disobeying a court order to pay back wages the court finds to have been stolen from an employee.

“In this time of fiscal crisis, we need to make sure that taxpayer-funded state contracts are only going to companies which treat their employees fairly. The vast majority of Illinois businesses, which play by the rules and do right by their employees, deserve a level playing field. Taxpayers deserve more confidence on how their money is spent. I was proud to support this common-sense measure,” said State Rep. Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth) who voted for SB1720.

According to HourVoice, wage theft takes many forms, including: shorting workers on their hours, not paying the minimum wage, and not properly paying overtime. It impacts employees in every region of Illinois – at all wage levels and in a wide array of industries.

“Wage theft is estimated to drain $800 million – $3 billion a year from the Illinois economy,” said State Representative Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) who sponsored the measure. “It can also push people below the poverty line and make it harder for working parents to support their children. But when low-income workers get the full pay they have earned, they improve the local and state economy with the dollars they spend.”

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Key legislators and worker advocates introduce bill to crack down on wage theft in Illinois


SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Feb. 21, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ – Three key legislators, State Senate Labor Committee Chairman Daniel Biss and State Representatives Lisa Hernandez and Carol Ammons, have joined forces with worker advocates, including HourVoice and United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 881, to introduce groundbreaking legislation (SB1720) to crack down on wage theft in Illinois. Wage theft is estimated to cost American workers over $50 billion per year and news reports have shown Illinois is a very difficult state for workers to recoup stolen wages.

“Our Illinois Fighting Wage Theft Act increases the penalties on companies that commit serious wage theft and prohibits those companies from receiving state government contracts for at least five years,” said State Senator and Labor Committee Chairman Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), who is sponsoring the bill. “Fair to both workers and businesses, SB1720 will level the playing field. Workers deserve to get paid every dollar they’ve earned and employers who treat workers properly and play by the rules shouldn’t be undercut by competitors who cheat their workers.”

Wage theft takes many forms, including: shorting workers on their hours, not paying the minimum wage, and not properly paying overtime. It most commonly victimizes low-paid workers; the very people who most need the money they earn.

Workers in nearly every industry are affected. For example, fast food giant Domino’s was caught using payroll software that systematically underpaid workers, and a major road contractor paid with our Illinois tax dollars was caught shorting its workers by $1.5 million.

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Opinion: How prevailing-wage laws help veterans

12/08/2016, 06:51pm
Mike Pounovich and Marc Poulos

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked an Obama administration rule to extend mandatory overtime pay to more than 4 million salaried workers from taking effect, imperiling one of the outgoing president’s signature achievements for boosting wages.

Veterans work in construction at higher rates than non-veterans. And the military invests heavily in training for these types of jobs – providing 22 percent of all skilled trade apprenticeships in the country today.

Research and our own experience inside the industry shows that the key policy driving many veterans and others into these middle-class construction careers is prevailing wage laws – the minimum wage for skilled construction work. Prevailing wage laws not only make veterans more likely to pursue a career in the trades, they also reduce the likelihood of a veteran in construction living in poverty by as much as 30 percent. They promote higher workmanship, safety, and efficiency standards on public construction projects. And by virtue of providing more working families with money to spend in their communities, they are proven to boost job creation across all sectors of the economy.

While these laws were created by Republicans and have long enjoyed broad bipartisan support, many in President-elect Trump’s party are calling for their repeal. Vice President-elect Mike Pence repealed Indiana’s prevailing wage in 2015, and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has gone so far as to hold the entire state budget hostage over a similar demand.

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Podcast: “Right-to-Work” Regulations and Unions

The Illinois Update
DECEMBER 5, 2016

Episode 3 of For A Living focuses on “right-to-work” laws. The podcast is available on iTunes and on SoundCloud.

What are so-called “right-to-work” laws? What is the historical background of these laws? What are their policy implications for the working class? Where are current political and legal battles occurring?

Professor Robert Bruno, Professor Emily E. LB Twarog, and I are joined by Dale Pierson, a Chicago-area labor lawyer who has served as General Counsel of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 150 since 2002, to answer these questions.

Thanks for listening!

For A Living is an educational podcast jointly provided by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Guest Commentary: Apprenticeships beneficial to economy

Sun, 10/30/2016 – 7:00am | The News-Gazette

Students of all ages across our country are back to school.

And while there are many disputes about education policy, there is no disputing its fundamental purpose – to prepare Americans for the jobs of tomorrow.
In Illinois, our fastest growing industry is construction. And construction is projected to grow at twice the rate of Illinois’ economy over the next decade, adding thousands of new
middle-class jobs.

Accessing these jobs in the fastest-growing skilled trades typically requires at least three years of apprenticeship training. And new research from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that the average impact of that training – in the form of increased earnings over an entire career – is greater than the effect of associate’s degrees and many bachelor’s degrees.

So what is an “apprenticeship?”

Apprenticeships have been around for nearly a century. They are governed by state and federal standards that ensure proper certification of graduates. Funded almost entirely by private entities such as employers, labor-management groups and unions, they require almost no out of pocket costs for students, and better yet, enable students to “earn while they learn” – collecting a paycheck while learning a skilled trade on the jobsite and in the classroom. Best of all, they ensure that our state has a pool of skilled tradespeople to meet our long-term infrastructure and building needs.

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