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.