Wage Theft in America: Why Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid

Ten Questions for Kim Bobo on Wage Theft in America: Why Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid and What We Can Do About It (The New Press, 2008)


What inspired me to write Wage Theft? What sparked your interest?

I planned just to write a short monograph on what a visionary Department of Labor might look like. I wanted to do this in order to influence the directions of new leadership at the Department of Labor.

As the director of Interfaith Worker Justice, I am constantly in touch with the leaders of our workers’ centers around the country. These centers help workers who haven’t gotten paid or who have been injured on the job. Even though many of the centers are essentially doing the work of the federal Department of Labor, we have not always had the best cooperation from the Department of Labor. And frankly, the agency is barely making a dent in stopping and deterring wage theft—the wholesale stealing of workers’ wages by employers. As a result of our concerns, I wanted to use the book to push the new Department of Labor leadership.

But as I got writing about the Department, I had to explain why the Department of Labor was important, which is why I had to talk about wage theft. Then, some of my manuscript readers wanted to know how employers stole wages, so I wrote about that. Then some wanted to know why employers stole, so I wrote another chapter. Before I knew it, I had a full book, including lots of suggestions about what we can do to stop wage theft.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Employers stealing wages is a national crisis. It is not a small isolated problem affecting a few workers. Billions of dollars are stolen annually from millions of workers.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I left out information about the failure of OSHA to protect workers’ health. If I’d had more time (I only had a three-month sabbatical and I wanted to get the book out right after the election), I would have documented the ways OSHA is failing workers, as well as the failure of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor (it’s this division that handles wage theft). I could also have written a chapter on the important role that private employment lawyers play in protecting workers. But again, I simply ran out of time and I don’t really know much about the private bar.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The biggest misconceptions are that wage theft is a small, isolated problem and that wage theft is primarily an immigrant problem. Wage theft affects millions of workers. Although immigrants may be some of the most exploited workers in the society, wage theft affects millions of native-born workers. It is not primarily an immigrant problem.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I had two primary audiences. The first was decision-makers who will influence the direction of the Department of Labor. This includes DOL transition team members and members of Congress. The second audience is the religious community, which can help stop wage theft locally.

The book makes the case about why wage theft is so important and then outlines how each of us can help stop and deter it. The congregational study guide (which appears in the book as an appendix and is also available as a stand-alone text, downloadable free of charge from the IWJ website) is designed to encourage congregations to study the book in adult forums.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I am an organizer. I want people to get involved in stopping and deterring wage theft. To reach that goal, I must inform people and get people shocked about the extent of the crisis—but then outline concrete ways that we can make a difference.

I’ve tried to write a book that is easy to read and offers hope for addressing the problems.

What alternative title would you give the book?

This is an easy question. I proposed that the title be Thou Shalt Not Steal. The publisher vetoed my selection!

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

I love Steve Greenhouse’s book The Big Squeeze. Steve is a terrific writer. Since I didn’t write it, I did prepare a congregational study guide [PDF] to go with it. So, readers should read his book and mine! Congregations can study both books using two study guides.

What’s your next book?

I’ve just finished 30 or so radio interviews in the last four weeks (some start at 6 a.m. and some start at 10:30 p.m.) and have another 20 or so lined up. I can’t face the thought of another book!


Kim Bobo’s congressional testimony on wage theft: