The fact that millions of Americans are out of work makes daily headlines, but a far less publicized problem is robbing working Americans of their full paychecks: the growing issue of wage theft.
A man we’ll call “Parker” recently came to NCL with his story: Parker, a skilled construction worker, had relocated back to North Carolina and was having a hard time landing a job. After weeks of searching, he was thrilled to find an opening at a firm that specializes in office construction and remodeling. Parker’s enthusiasm for his new job was short-lived. After he was hired, his employer informed him that he would be required to complete 40 hours of unpaid “training,” which for Parker meant a full week of arduous, physical work dismantling cubicles and work stations and replacing them with new ones.
“The ‘training period’ is nothing but a scam,” explains Parker. “We work as a team; no one needs to show you how to load or unload a truck full of old furniture, it’s common sense. The ‘training’ was just us paying him back for working for him.”
“According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), training that is mandatory, work-related, and during business hours, needs to be paid to be in accordance with federal labor law,” explains Michell K. McIntyre, the Project Director of the National Consumers League’s Special Project on Wage Theft. “Forcing employees to work a job for no pay on the ruse that the work involves “training” is exploitation in its simplest form."
After Parker reluctantly worked a full week for no pay, he learned that his employer had devised a myriad of unscrupulous excuses to reduce the pay further. Parker was hired with a starting a wage of $10 dollars an hour, but after daily deductions for gas to transport him and co-workers to the construction site and the “privilege” of using the tools necessary for the job, along with sporadic charges for other equipment the employer claimed were “missing,” Parker was making far less than initially promised.
“We have to pay $10 dollars a day to cover the gas it takes to get us to work sites and to use the tools,” says Parker, frustrated. “That’s one hour every day that we don’t get paid for; that adds up to about $160 to $200 a month that comes straight out of our paychecks.”
Automatic deductions not included, Parker doesn’t even get paid for all the hours he is at work. Parker reports to work at 7 am but the company van that transports workers to construction sites often doesn’t show up until much later, and it could be another half hour to an hour before the workers actually arrive at the work location. Parker and his coworkers can only clock in and begin earning their hourly wages once they are physically at the construction site.
The FLSA defines the workweek as the total amount of time an employee is required to be on an employer's premises or work site. A workday can be longer than the employee's scheduled shift or hours, but all additional time needs to be paid. In Parker’s case, several hours worth of pay are regularly subtracted from his paycheck.
“We have to report to work at 7 am, but the van that gets us to the location can show up well after that. When I work at two different sites in a single day, the time it takes for me to get from one job to another is subtracted from my time […] there have been times where I worked 15 hours and only got paid for 11.”
“According to the US Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division, time spent by an employee in travel as part of their principal activity, such as travel from job site to job site during the workday, is work time and must be counted as hours worked,” says McIntyre
Although wage theft victims often aren’t even aware of the fact that they are being victimized, in Parker’s case the violations are so egregious that he and his coworkers have come to understand that their employer is breaking the law. However, that knowledge is of little help.
“A lot of us don’t want to complain too much ‘cause we don’t want to lose our jobs. I’m trying to line up another job but I haven’t found one yet, so for now, I need this job,” explains Parker. “If you make too much noise you get a text at night saying you are laid off; I can’t afford that right now.”
National Consumers League has provided support and direction to Parker as he seeks redress for the wage theft he has experienced. Parker has already contacted the U.S. Department of Labor and the North Carolina Justice Center to help recoup his lost wages, but to start formal proceedings Parker would have to give out identifying information—something he is not yet prepared to do.
The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division has resources to help victims and potential victims of wage theft. Its program, We Can Help, has a Web site (www.dol.gov/wecanhelp) and tools to help workers track their pay, overtime and vacation time – an app for smartphones and a printable work hours calendar in English and Spanish.
Parker’s plight highlights how wage theft victimizes workers in two devastating ways: by robbing them of their money and then preventing them from getting help for fear of losing their jobs. For workers like Parker, whose first concern is providing for his family, the strategy is often to wait to secure another job before attempting legal action. In a tough economy with steady unemployment, wage theft victims across the nation are in for a long wait.
To learn more about wage theft, or if you or someone you know may be a victim, click here for more information.