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Sens. Brown and Murray Unveil National Wage Theft Bill to Stiffen Penalties, Empower Workers

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In an attempt to curtail wage theft on the national level, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have introduced the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act, which would enhance existing protections as well as add new tools to fight the wage theft epidemic.  If passed, the bill would stiffen penalties for wage violators and allow employees to seek triple the amount they are owed in damages, plus interest.  The bill also proposes new penalties for violating the minimum wage, not keeping proper records, and being a repeat offender.  

Senator Murray issued a statement, saying:

“Too many people across the country go to work every day to support themselves and their families only to have their bosses cheat them out of their hard-earned pay.  This bill would help even the playing field for the vast majority of businesses that are treating their workers fairly, and it would empower more workers by making sure their paychecks reflect the hours and hard work they put in on the job. Boosting economic security for more workers is an important step in our efforts to help the economy grow from the middle out, not the top down.”

The bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Brown, added:

“When bosses don’t pay their workers what they’re owed, it robs them of money they earned for their hard work and hurts businesses that play by the rules.  It’s shameful that employers are reaching into the pockets of low-income workers who have bills to pay and families to feed. We must create a system where employers who steal wages are held accountable and workers have the tools they need to recover their wages when they’ve been cheated.”

The bill is co-sponsored in the house by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who touted its preventative qualities:

“The greatest economic challenge facing our country today is that too many people are in jobs that do not pay them enough. That issue is exacerbated by the growing epidemic of wage theft. Plain and simple—employees should be paid for their work. All of their work.  The Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act is comprehensive legislation that will strengthen current federal law and empower employees to recover their lost wages. Whether it is compensation for a day’s work, or overtime, employees should be paid what they earn. This legislation not only protects workers, but it will help our economy grow.”

The bill would also increase the period of time during which employees can bring claims for owed wages forward. That period currently lasts two years but would be increased to four (and from three years to five years for willful violations).  It would also make it easier for employees to collect back wages by changing the requirement in class action settlements from an opt-in to an opt-out, thus making inclusion rather than exclusion the default.

In order to prevent workers from being cheated on their final paychecks the bill would also require employers to pay final paychecks within 14 days of separation or by the payday for the pay period, whichever is earlier.  If this standard is not met, the employer would then owe the employee in question their daily wage for each day beyond this period that the paycheck goes unpaid, for a maximum of 30 days.

An Economic Policy Institute study from September of 2014 showed the wage theft epidemic as a leading factor in keeping low-wage workers from post-recession economic recovery. Employers steal more money from the American people than robbers:

In 2012, $933 million was paid in back wages for wage theft violations, although that figure is an undercount because there were six state departments of labor and five attorneys general the organization couldn’t contact.

Compare that to the less than $350 million stolen in all robberies, including from banks, residences, stores, and on the street in 2012. That’s not just the figure for those that were solved, but for any robbery simply reported to the police.

The bill is expecting fierce opposition from pro-business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and obstructionist Republicans.


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