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Minnesota Worker Site Unveils Tremendous Collection of Wage Theft Exposés, Articles

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A tremendous amount of work went into Joey Getty and Barb Kucera’s new special collection of 10 stories on wage theft for Workday Minnesota.  The series used interviews, reports, and video to touch on a wide array of wage theft topics ranging from payroll fraud, to theft in the home healthcare industry, to abuse on Minnesota farms.  Below, we briefly highlight some key points made in the collection, which we encourage you to view in its entirety.

One of the more solutions-related pieces was “Business-labor partnership tackles wage theft on public projects.”  The story centers around the Fair Contracting Foundation, a joint effort of contractors and building trades unions seeking to ensure that workers are paid the prevailing wage on public construction projects.  

The group has helped recover nearly $1 million in stolen wages and benefits on behalf of workers.  It spends much of its efforts educating workers on prevailing wage laws and the rights associated with proper payment.  It also follows up on tips and investigates them when appropriate. The coalition is viewed as a model that can be replicated elsewhere in the country.

The group’s executive director, Mike Wilde, told Workday Minnesota:

Wilde recalls that, in his first week on the job at the Foundation, “We saw a western suburb elementary school being built for cash under the table, far below the wage standard. I will also say it was one of the most unsafe and poor workmanship that the people in the trades had seen for years, and that was on a public school.

“And when we brought it to the attention of the people that would enforce that contract, the contractor picked up all the equipment and left in the middle of the night. That’s a public project. So you would expect that maybe on your neighbor’s deck – hopefully not – but not on a public school.”

In another case, Wilde described how the Foundation nailed a contractor working on a military project “who had bragged to people that prevailing wage wasn’t an issue, moreover, he hadn’t paid anybody on his staff unemployment for 30 years . . . He used out-of-state workers, four of them, and paid them less than half of the prevailing wage standard. We found them – two in Georgia, one in Colorado, one in another state – and talked to them. They told us exactly what they got paid, exactly when they worked and we shared that with the state. That contractor ended up paying some penalties and paying what he should have owed.”

Records show violations have occurred in the most unlikely places — $536 in back wages paid in 2014 for misclassifying workers on a project at the Governor’s mansion, for example – and at large institutions such as the University of Minnesota and MNSCU.

The most frequent violations, Wilde believes, occur in local school districts, where communities lack the experience or resources to enforce the law.

Wilde went on to explain the two-pronged importance of prevailing wage enforcement:

“If there are no standards with respect to wages, then the government finds itself procuring construction services from whoever can find the cheapest labor and the cheapest labor is usually unskilled labor, is usually less-safe labor, is almost always less quality labor, so that’s reflected in the end product.  So, rather than subject themselves to that complete race to the bottom, they have these standards and it ensures a quality product and quality service.”

Another highlight, “Wage theft may be widespread on Minnesota farms,” looks into abusive agricultural workplaces.  Though we often focus on wage theft in the construction industry, it is interesting to see how workers in an entirely different sector experience similar problems and how they use similar tools to combat them.

Wage theft in agricultural workplaces is slightly harder to detect given the different labor laws that apply to the sector.  After investigating records from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, Workday Minnesota found that many workers were not being paid proper overtime.  In agricultural workplaces such as rural dairy farms, overtime hours of 1.5 base pay begin to accrue after 48 hours are worked in a week.  The video below provides some background into the situation facing farm workers in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  

Not unlike the Latino construction workforce in Texas, Minnesota workers are turning to Workers’ Centers to help them collect the wages they are owed:

Ernesto Velez, executive director at Centro Campesino(link is external), said the Owatonna-based worker center has seen people who are working 60, 70 or even 80 hours a week, but only receiving  $23,000 to $27,000 in salary.

“The worst case that I saw was a guy who was working at a pig farm and he was working an average of 65-68 hours a week. And his salary came to about $24,000 a year,” Velez recalled.
Velez said wage theft in agriculture is not rare, estimating that as many as 70 percent of Minnesota farm workers have experienced it. Many work long hours on farms that have livestock, including cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys. Many are undocumented immigrants who are afraid to speak up.

He described the numerous dangers in many farm jobs, such as lifting heavy hogs, getting kicked by cows, getting stuck in silos on grain farms, completing repetitive motions throughout the day and making mistakes based on a lack of technical training.

“There was a scenario where somebody was given the task to do hormone shots on small hogs and, with no experience, ended up shooting himself and ended up being hospitalized and being treated for that hormone entering the body,” he said.

While failure to pay overtime is a common problem, other forms of wage theft in agriculture include employers misclassifying workers as independent contractors, and, in some cases, not paying workers at all.

Kudos to Workday Minnesota for this ever-necessary deep dive..  This troublingly common practice plagues our nation and awareness, as always, is step one.


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