Wage theft demands legislative response, advocates say

June 21, 2017
By Katie Lannan and Colin A. Young

Supporters of legislation aimed at preventing wage theft painted a picture of an urgent need for action on Tuesday, telling lawmakers that Massachusetts workers across all industries are denied hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

A bill (S 999/H 1033) filed by Sen. Sal DiDomenico and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz seeks to prevent wage law violations by allowing the issuance of stop-work orders until violations are corrected and giving Attorney General Maura Healey’s office the power to bring wage theft cases to court for civil damages.

“We’ve seen people not get paid for months on end,” Steve Joyce of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters told the Labor and Workforce Development Committee. “They’re selling what they have in order to live. That’s just wrong, and you have the opportunity to change this by passing this bill.”

Eleven months into the 2017 fiscal year, Healey’s office has received 16,000 calls to its wage theft hotline, or about 70 per day, said Cynthia Mark, the chief of Healey’s Fair Labor Division. More than 5,000 complaints have been made to the office, and the division is on track to resolve nearly 600 cases through citation or settlement. It has ordered employers to pay almost $5 million in restitution in and more than $2 million in penalties to the state’s general fund.

The bill is opposed by business groups, 16 of which signed on to a letter to the committee arguing that the solution to wage theft is not in a new law “but rather in enhanced enforcement efforts and additional funding for the Attorney General’s office to enable her staff to use the tools currently in place.”

“This bill, in its current form, will unfairly punish legitimate and law-abiding companies in all industries across Massachusetts who contract with other businesses for services, but have no control over the operations of those independent businesses,” said the letter, signed by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, NAIOP Massachusetts, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and other groups. “If a company violates the current laws, the company in violation should be penalized through existing statutes and regulations, which ensure fair and timely payment of wages.”

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