Thanks to a wave of government cuts, there’s no one to stop your boss from withholding your pay.
Even as the ranks of low-wage workers have swelled since the recession, Democratic and Republican legislatures in more than a dozen states have quietly slashed funding for the agencies that enforce minimum wage law. Budget cuts are no surprise in an era of austerity. Yet the effect of these cuts on wage-and-hour investigative units—charged with examining and settling wage disputes—has seriously compromised an essential line of defense for already vulnerable low-wage earners, according to experts. State labor officials and researchers around the country tell In These Times that low-wage workers facing abusive employers increasingly have nowhere to turn.
The victims of nonpayment of owed wages—referred to as “wage theft”—are most frequently workers at the bottom of the income scale. The U.S. Department of Labor, which significantly expanded its investigative force under former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, can take wage theft cases, but it is less familiar with local particulars and is prohibited from investigating many employers covered by state laws. Most private attorneys are unwilling to take wage theft cases, since they involve comparatively small sums of money.
Former investigators interviewed for this article say that budget cuts over the past decade have impeded their ability to perform meaningful investigations. They paint a stark picture of weakened enforcement divisions, lacking both necessary staff and funding, that regularly close claims of wage theft that appear legitimate. Such closed cases represent de facto wins for employers.
“This sends a powerful message to employers that they’re not likely to get caught and that following minimum wage laws isn’t a priority,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s to the point where, in some industries, there’s no minimum wage floor at all.”