National Day of Action Against Wage Theft

Today is the day that all of us should reflect on the crime that almost never goes punished: wage theft. Interfaith Worker Justice has a page on its website describing some of the actions IWJ affiliates are planning.

Earlier this week, I posted a bit about a wage theft case involving immigrant workers mistreated while in the country on a temporary visa. This news has exploded nationally so I can share more about it. The workers were employed in a food concession stand at the State Fair in Syracuse this past summer. Pantelis Karageorgis, owner of Peter’s Fine Greek Food, has been charged with human trafficking in this case. You can read more about it in this article, written by Art Levine. The Syracuse Post-Standard also reported on it. Many, many thanks to our friends Rebecca, Pat and others at the Syracuse Workers’ Center for working so tirelessly on this issue.

It is shocking to hear that Mexican workers were promised $10-12 dollars an hour to work in the US for the summer but were kept virtually imprisoned, working up to 24 hours a day for $1 an hour, bitten by bedbugs, dehydrated and malnourished. But can this happen to American workers here?

Although the stories aren’t as dramatic, there are certainly stories that we hear about wage theft. Here are a few:

a desk clerk at a health club tires of not receiving his paycheck. He quits and decides to sue in Small Claims Court. The owner of the health club, a successful architect and local landlord, thumbs his nose at the law and doesn’t pay.

a retail worker agrees to work for $5 an hour; the owner promises to pay her minimum wage when the business is successful. Two years later, still no raise. Luckily, this case was amicably settled with all back wages paid. Still, we hear through the grapevine that this employer — who is described as being “so nice” — regularly pays employees $5/hr.

An employee makes a mistake mailing packages. The employer deducts the postage costs from the employee’s paycheck and requires the employee to come into work on his own time to correct the mistake.

a new restaurant in Collegetown opens in February 2010 and immediately begins paying waitstaff $3.50 an hour. (Tipped minimum wage is $4.65 an hour in NY; the employer must make sure that with tips the waitstaff is making at least $7.25 an hour.) A mandatory tip pool is required of all waitstaff, the tips being distributed by the owners. The owners share in the tips. This is illegal. Management must not ever be in charge of a tip pool and are never allowed to tip share. The Workers’ Center had  meetings with this employer last August; they were supplied with copies of the law. They pleaded innocence: they had recently moved from Virginia and did not know the NYS laws. But soon after that meeting, we began receiving phonecalls again: the owners were back to their old tricks, stealing tips, paying low salaries to dishwashers working 14 hour days, 6 days a week.

Photo, left: Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice and author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid – And What We Can Do About It. photo by carlosiwj.

This is not uncommon. Last year, a local restaurant, Hogsback BarBQ, opened and closed without paying most of its employees anything. The owner has a trail of judgements against him for taking deposits for construction jobs that were never begun as well as the wage theft against the employees who sued him in Small Claims Court. Unfortunately, you can steal with impunity from your employees, have the court decide against you and get away with it all. It is up to the winning party to collect the damages.

Many other people never receive their overtime pay, their last paycheck or — an all too common problem — their tips.

These are just a few of the many cases we hear about and work on in Tompkins County. The only thing we can do to stop this is for all of us to step up and say NO to wage theft. We’ll be letting you know about cases as they come to us.

If you are a business person outraged by wage theft, think about participating in IWJ’s Ethical Business Leader Campaign. Visit their site at