Thursday, March 20, 2014

151.1 - Good News: low-wage workers open another front

Good News: low-wage workers open another front

I've spoken on more than one occasion about the strengthening campaign among low-wage workers to obtain a living wage - in fact, I mentioned it just last week. Even as that campaign slowly gains strength, another front has been opened in the battle against the McDonald's-izing and Walmart-izing of the American work force.

That front is a counter-attack against wage theft, the illegal but all-too-common practice of employers cheating their workers out of rightfully-earned wages or benefits. How big an issue, how widespread is it? Consider this: The amount of illegally withheld wages recovered by the Department of Labor in 2008 - not the total amount illegally withheld, the total recovered - was over $185 million. By comparison, in 2009, the total losses from bank, convenience store, and gas station robberies combined was less than $57 million, considerably less than one-third as much.

Well, this week, workers in California, Michigan, and New York struck back. They filed a total of six new lawsuits against McDonald's, claiming they were systematically shorted on pay by the corporation and its franchisees.

The complaints charge, among other things, that McDonald's and certain franchisees violated minimum wage and overtime regulations, forced employees to work off the clock, and took illegal deductions for costs related to uniforms.

These suits could potentially involve and benefit tens of thousands of current and past McDonald's employees and in any event should bring more attention to just how common wage theft is for low-wage workers, particularly in the fast-food industry. In fact, just this pass summer there was a survey of 500 fast-food workers in New York City, 84% of who said they had experienced at least one sort of wage theft in the previous year.

One of the 27 named plaintiffs in the suits said “I knew I wouldn’t be making a lot of money, but I thought a well-known company like McDonald’s would treat me fairly - at the very least follow the law.”

He really should have known better.

By the way, as a footnote, wage theft does not affect only low-wage workers. A form of wage theft was in the news in January when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave final approval for a class action suit against Apple, Google, Intel, and Adobe. The suit, which arose out of an earlier DOJ antitrust case, charges that the corporations agreed not to recruit each others' employees, to share wage scale information, and to punish violators of the agreement, thus illegally colluding to hold down the wages of their employees - those affected in this case being well-paid engineers - by limiting their career opportunities.

Did they know this was doing their workers dirt? Oh, yeah: In 2005, the year the agreement was made, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, told his Senior VP for Business Operation Shona Brown to keep the pact a secret and only share information “verbally, since I don’t want to create a paper trail over which we can be sued later.”



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