In March we gave a laurel to In These Times for a solid expose by Spencer Woodman on a growing problem of state legislatures slashing budgets for agencies that enforce minimum wage laws. It was an issue that had gone largely undercovered in Virginia, where Woodman based his piece, following a worker named Anthony Van Buren’s fight to retrieve money owed to him by a contractor for a painting job. We urged other state-level government reporters to keep an eye on the story.
Some movement on the issue came about this week. In Florida, The Gainesville Sun writes that as of Jan. 1, new ordinances go into effect that allow workers duped out of pay to file a claim with the county; an independent officer will hear cases and rule on them. And the city of New Brunswick became the first municipality in New Jersey to adopt an ordinance banning wage theft, as the Star-Ledger reported.
Meanwhile, a contractor that operates warehouses for Walmart “agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle allegations that it cheated workers out of wages,” The Huffington Post reported early last month, and dozens of workers in San Francisco received $800,000 in unpaid wages from an assisted living service after the city attorney’s office prosecuted the case.
I caught up with Woodman this week, who said he thought coverage on the issue has improved, something he says might have to do with the rise of labor efforts like the fast-food workers’ movements.
“After my story came out, it was striking to hear anecdotes just from people I know personally—friends and family—who’d found themselves in situations where they weren’t paid for work and had found they had little viable recourse,” he told me.
And there are other angles on the issue still ripe for more reporting.
“One in-depth story that I’d like to see someone do is about systematic wage theft in large workplaces, like warehouses, that have computerized systems of clocking people in and out,” Woodman says. “In a lot of these situations, worker’s pay is inappropriately paired back each day by matters of minutes, even seconds, which might seem small, but adds up to huge sums of savings for the company in the aggregate. Think of it as micro wage theft. There are some interesting ‘donning and doffing’ class actions that have emerged over the past year, and my understanding is that some more of these larger distribution warehouses might be vulnerable to similar suits.”
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