It happens way more often than you think: wage theft.
"Wage theft is when workers aren't paid for the work that they've done," said Kyle Kordsmeier of the Workers Interfaith Network. "We're finding that throughout the restaurant industry, throughout the staffing agencies, throughout the construction industry, this is common practice."
Workers can be defrauded of their wages in a number of different ways: Restaurant workers or other tipped employees may not be paid the federal minimum of $2.13 an hour. Construction workers on government contracts might be mislabeled as "laborers" when they're actually welders or bricklayers and be paid much less for it. Hourly wage workers might work 50 or 60 hours a week and not be paid overtime.
Unsurprisingly, the workers cheated most often are those for whom English is a second language or others who might not be familiar with labor laws in the United States. Kordsmeier says many workers will come to the Workers Interfaith Network with other complaints, only to find out that they are also victims of wage theft.
"It's kind of become an epidemic since the economy's gone down. We had 400 calls last year, and we think the actual number of wage theft incidences is much higher," Kordsmeier said. "More low-wage workers are experiencing forms of wage theft because they don't have the resources to go after employers. Also, with government cutbacks, the department of labor hasn't really been given the resources to go out and enforce the law."
That's why Kordsmeier and others are drafting a county ordinance to create a process for workers to file criminal charges against employers who have cheated them out of their earnings.
The ordinance, which should come before the Shelby County Commission in the fall, would not create any rules or restrictions — they are already in place — but would instead create a means for enforcing the law. Kordsmeier said they are working with the county to create a position for someone with experience in labor law who can take on these wage theft cases.
"We want to have a person appointed to actually set up a hearing, like an EEOC hearing, and basically make a determination based on the evidence," Kordsmeier said. "When Miami-Dade passed this ordinance [in 2010], they paid $75,000 for a person to take on this job, but they recovered over $1 million in the first year. Since that money went back to low-wage workers, they spent most of that money in the county. This is actually a way for the county to make money."
Kordsmeier hopes the legal recourse will encourage more workers to come forward with wage theft complaints.
"Workers who are being cheated will oftentimes not speak up because that little bit of money they get is what feeds their family," he said. "They won't say anything because they don't want to lose that small job."