Wage theft bill would bolster workers’ rights


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Rarely are employees willing to work for free. For years, though, some Iowa workers have been doing just that — without their consent.

Iowa workers owed back wages or rightful pay from employers are the target recipients of a recent state Senate bill now working its way through a House committee. Senate File 311 details a more concrete process for “wage payment collection issues arising between employers and individuals who provide services to employers.”

Put simply, it necessitates that all workers hired in the state be given a written statement of salaried wages and deductions made in pay. The bill also ensures that employees participating in a wage-claim dispute may not be prejudiced against or face termination as a result. Passage of this bill would mark an important initial step toward improving Iowa workers’ rights, and the Iowa House Labor Committee (and broader chamber) should approve it.

The torpid economy and high unemployment take a toll on workers and employers alike. A national study released earlier this month by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the National Employment Law Project, and UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that wage-law violations spiked with the recession, particularly in low-wage fields; on average, workers in the researchers’ sample lost 13 percent of their earnings to wage theft.

Since early fall of 2010, “we’ve been getting 10 to 15 calls per week about wage theft,” said Misty Rebik, a Latino community organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Wage theft” is considered not being paid for all hours worked, being unfairly paid for overtime, or not receiving wages at all. “We’ve seen it in all industries,” she said, noting that it was most prevalent for young workers and those in low-income jobs — those often filled by minority and immigrant workers.

The recession complicates matters; high unemployment means less freedom of choice for workers. It is difficult to quit a job, even over major grievances, when there is no assurance of new employment — and it is harder to bring a wage complaint to bear when it could result in termination.

While it lacks the teeth necessary to enforce compliance of rightful pay (Republicans removed a provision that would fine noncomplying businesses), SF 311 would make wage complaints easier by removing punitive measures against complainants. The bill’s required record-keeping would also cause businesses to maintain a body of evidence that could be used against them in investigations, gently discouraging violations and vastly expediting claims.

A recent publication by the National Employment Law Project, “Winning Wage Justice,” recommends several remedies to ineffective wage-theft legislation: States must “raise the cost to employers for violating the law,” “make government agencies effective enforcers,” “better protect workers from retaliation,” “hold subcontracting employers accountable,” and finally (if not most obviously) “ensure workers are paid for all hours worked.” SF 311 may only address a couple of these points, but every campaign begins somewhere — if the House Republicans allow it to progress.

The future of SF 311 is unfortunately nebulous. The bill has stalled in committee because of House Labor Committee Chairman Lance Horbach’s concerns about burdening business. How burdensome a few pages of documentation would prove, however, is unclear.

“We’re hoping [House] Republicans, after hearing our testimonies, understand that this is about good record keeping,” Rebik said. “It will make employers realize they need to keep proper records — good, honest employers are already doing this.”

Our state is not alone in seeking to ensure its citizens fair wages. A bill to penalize wage theft was voted into law in Illinois last year. In New York, the recently passed Wage Theft Prevention Act is nearly identical to the proposed bill in the Iowa House. Along with requiring employers to provide written notices of wage rates (in the worker’s primary language), it also allows for the recovery of owed pay and automatically sets the employee’s wages at $50 per week should he or she fail to receive a written notice.

The presence of rightful-wage laws allows for the equal accrual of payment by minority, immigrant, and workers of all stripes, whether they live in the Brooklyn borough or Brooklyn, Iowa. Even if SF 311 would not eliminate wage theft, it would make wage complaints much more feasible, holding employers accountable to their promises and the law.

For the sake of Iowa’s entire workforce — hardworking farmers to construction workers, baristas to insurance salesmen, lifelong laboring Iowans to migrant workers — the House needs to support wages paid for work performed. Man cannot live on bread alone, but he certainly cannot live without income.

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