Insult to injury: stolen wages, weak enforcement

A Laurel to In These Times for a solid expose

On the cover of this month’s issue of In These Times, a progressive magazine based out of Chicago, is the face of Anthony Van Buren. The writer of the cover piece, Spencer Woodman, used this Virginia worker’s story—a fight to retrieve money owed to him by a contractor for a painting job—to spotlight a growing national problem: state legislatures in lean times slashing budgets for agencies that enforce minimum wage laws.

The magazine called it “The wage theft epidemic,” and it deserves a CJR Laurel for the effort. Van Buren says he was owed more than $1,000 for his labor—money he desperately needed to avoid eviction. With some digging, Woodman and In These Times demonstrated that the problem is widespread, a serious one for people all over the country at the low end of the wage scale.

From the piece:

Virginia offers an extreme case. Last July, the state eliminated its entire wage-and-hour enforcement unit. All six of the state’s minimum wage investigators retired or were reassigned, leaving many wage theft victims either to give up or―like Anthony Van Buren―to resort to vigilantism to retrieve pay.

The piece went on to quote Bobby Myers, who, until last July, worked as a wage-and-hour investigator in Virginia. “During his last two years on the job, his caseload resembled that of other hard-hit departments around the country,” the magazine reported. “When he first arrived in 2009, the staff was large enough that an investigator was usually available to focus on hard cases―and could even drive hours to personally visit a non-compliant employer. But by 2011, each compliance officer was solely responsible for some 250 wage claims a year, a job Myers describes as a chaotic race against a swelling backlog that often left him “just filing ‘no’” on tough cases.”

Our powers were just really weak. We were constantly bluffing,” says Myers. “Some repeat offenders eventually learned to call our bluff, and then there was very little we could do. That was when the claimant would see just how powerless we were to enforce the wage law of the commonwealth of Virginia.

Often, an accused employer would simply refuse to hand over essential, potentially incriminating documents, and after several attempts to coax the employer by phone and mail, Myers would have to close a case without further investigation. Thus, for at least several savvy employers in Virginia, Myers says, there was effectively no minimum wage.

Virginia lawmakers restored funding to the investigative division of the agency in charge of enforcing wage laws after the In These Times story ran, and after what the magazine noted in an update was a “months-long lobbying effort by labor advocates.”

In an interview, Woodman said he got the idea for the story after reading a report from the University of Iowa about understaffing at that state’s compliance division. After further research, he learned that it was a national problem, he said.

Woodman pointed out that Virginia is a major trouble spot. Yet, he told me, there has been virtually no local coverage of wage theft and enforcement in the state that he could see before his February 20 story ran in the national publication.

Tim Freilich, an attorney for the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center, backs that up. He said he saw “minimal coverage statewide” about the issue, though he did note a few brief pieces, some of which he provided background for. Those included a January 10 story on Virginia Public Radio, a January 16 piece in the Harrisburg Daily News-Record and a Jan. 28 blog post in The Roanoke Times.

In mid-January 2012—a year before these stories—Bobby Myers, the Roanoke-area labor law compliance officer for the Virginia Department of Labor & Industry, had written an op/ed in The Roanoke Times warning about the specific line item in GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell’s budget that would eliminate the state’s Wage and Employment Law Division.
From his op-ed:

While this is wrong on so many levels for the economically disadvantaged and the working poor, it is also a slap in the face to those employers who abide by the law and treat their employees fairly. Their unscrupulous competition will have an advantage over them. They should be concerned, if not outraged, at this as well.

On March 14, I sent emails to editors at three big daily papers in Virginia—the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Charlottesville Daily Progress and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk—asking if I’d missed any of their coverage on the issue. None of them responded, but we’ll update this post if we missed anything.

Woodman, interestingly, struggles with the term “wage theft.” On the one hand, it’s good shorthand, he said, “But to say it’s always theft feels a little off to me. In so many of these cases, the company itself is faltering, out of money and seems to want to pay employees but says it can’t. That said, companies should not have people clocking in if they think they won’t have the money to pay them the following week. Moreover, there is a lot of systematic, deliberate wage theft that takes place.”

Particularly, we imagine, if enforcement keeps getting whacked. Woodman’s cover story mentions several states other than Virginia that are also quietly cut funding for agencies that investigate and enforce minimum wage laws. They include Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Missouri, Michigan, Hawaii, Oregon, and New Jersey. There may be others, and it might be a good idea for statehouse reporters to check the status of similar agencies in their own states. If Virginia is any indication, unpaid wages could be an under-covered issue on the state government beat.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at Tags: , , ,