Wage theft is widespread, but politics and policies can play a powerful role in reducing it.

Wage theft is pervasive in America; in a new study of low-wage workers across the US, Daniel J. Galvin finds that 16 percent were paid less than their state’s minimum wage. He also finds that workers in those states which had greater employment law protections tended to have a lower chance of experiencing wage theft, and that those protections tended to be in states with unified Democratic governments. With Donald Trump’s Labor Department unlikely to do much to address the problem, he writes that workers’ advocates will need to build coalitions and work with Democrats at the state and city level in order to ensure workers are protected from wage theft. 


Daniel J. Galvin

Wage theft is pervasive, but often remains hidden. When employers cheat employees out of the wages they’ve earned, few complain out of fear they’ll be fired, deported, or abused. Indeed, as the Trump administration has begun more aggressive deportations, immigrant workers have already become less likely to come forward.

The cases of wage theft we are able to see are either brought to light through the bravery of workers who feel they must take a stand or through Department of Labor investigations, lawsuits brought by determined attorneys general like Eric Schneiderman of New York, or painstaking efforts to root them out by innovative state labor commissioners like Julie Su in California. Journalists have helped raise awareness as well.

A New York Times exposé of the nail salon industry in New York City, for example, revealed that new employees-usually undocumented immigrants-were often required to pay $100 for the opportunity to work, forced to “train” for weeks without pay, and were then paid as little as $30 a day for 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, all in violation of federal and state minimum wage and overtime laws.

Almost everything else we know about the problem comes from academic investigations. The most widely cited study, conducted back in 2008, surveyed 4,387 hard-to-reach low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and found that 26 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage in the previous week, with 60 percent underpaid by more than $1 per hour. More than three quarters of those who worked over 40 hours did not receive any overtime pay.

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