Want to Love Your Neighbor? Pay Fair Wages

This Labor Day weekend, the lectionary texts admonish us to love our neighbor as ourselves (James 2:8), and to be careful not to rob or exploit the poor (Proverbs 22:22). The Torah portion reminds us of God’s willingness to free us from unjust employers and oppressive working conditions (Deuteronomy 26:6-8).

Are these just words for another time? I think not.

A landmark new report, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities,” demonstrates the pervasiveness of wage theft. The study (jointly issued by the National Employment Law Project, UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, and the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago) is based on rigorous surveys of over 4,000 workers in low-wage industries in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The results are astounding, and confirm what Interfaith Worker Justice’s worker centers around the country have been saying for the last few years. Among the workers surveyed:

• Fully 26 percent of workers were paid less than the legally-required minimum wage, and 60 percent of those underpaid were underpaid by more than $1 per hour.

• Of those who worked overtime, 75 percent were not paid the legally-required overtime.

• Nearly a quarter of the workers came in early or stayed late after their shift. Of these workers, 70 percent did not receive any or all the pay for this work.

• Of the workers entitled to a meal break, two-thirds were cheated of part or all of it.

• Among the tipped workers, 30 percent were not paid the tipped worker minimum wage (which in Illinois and New York is lower than the regular wage) and 12 percent had tips stolen by their employer or supervisor.

Although immigrant workers suffered the highest minimum-wage violations, the overtime, off-the-clock work, and meal break violations were common for native born and immigrant workers alike.

Not all employers were bad. The same employers who treated people well overall (the ones who treated their neighbors like they would like to be treated; offering health insurance, paid vacations, and paid sick days) were associated with lower violation rates. Good employers pay people fairly.

Where are the workers who are being cheated employed? They work in textile manufacturing, personal and repair services, private households (child care and cleaning), residential construction, social assistance, home health care, restaurants, retail and grocery stores, and warehousing. Workers being underpaid are all around us. Although this study looks at three cities, it is safe to assume that conditions are same in other communities throughout the nation.

Paying workers seems kind of basic. Most people of goodwill assume that the problems are among rogue employers and industries. But this study demonstrates the pervasive nature of wage theft in our society. Underpaying (or even not paying) workers is, lamentably, routine practice.

This Labor Day, you can find some new ways to “love your neighbor.” You can:

Conduct your own wage theft survey to learn about problems faced by workers in your congregation, campus, or community. The survey you conduct need not have the rigor of “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” but it will help you understand wage theft in your own community.

Ask how workers are paid when you hire a firm to do work. Are workers paid overtime as required by law? Are the workers paid as employees or misclassified as independent contractors (which cheats workers and public coffers)? Do workers get health insurance, paid vacations, and paid sick days? If you or your organization are hiring a firm, you can ask questions about how workers are paid.

Support local and national efforts to improve wage enforcement. This Labor Day, there are dozens of initiatives to strengthen wage enforcement at the local and national levels. Join a campaign to pass new anti-wage theft laws. Volunteer in a worker center. Honor and applaud ethical employers in your community.

If you love your neighbor, make sure that neighbor is paid.