Wage theft new battle cry in minimum-wage fight

Fast food workers and activists demonstrate outside McDonald's downtown flagship restaurant in July. (Scott Olson)

Recent high-profile protests across Chicago have brought attention to low-wage workers’ agitation for higher pay, and introduced a phrase that may not be familiar to the average Joe: “wage theft.”

It's a dramatic term for something labor advocates say happens every day, but what exactly does it mean?

"Wage theft actually is a really, really pervasive issue," said Adam Kader, the Worker Center director at activist group Arise Chicago. "It's definitely one that’s not quite a household name yet, but a few years ago, we were very deliberate about using the term 'wage theft' as opposed to 'non-payment of wages.' "

Among the most common are allegations that workers are paid less than minimum wage or paid unfairly for overtime work, instances of employers skimming a few cents off of each paycheck—and sometimes, particularly in non-union jobs, workers are not paid at all, Kader said.

Adriana Alvarez, 22, said her bosses at McDonald’s used to make her clock out before she counted up the cash register every night, meaning she wouldn’t get paid for the 20 or 30 minutes per night it took to count the money. If the register was short, she used to have to pay the difference out of her own pocket.

While Alvarez did not file a formal legal complaint, she termed those practices wage theft, and she and her co-workers presented the management of their McDonald's with a petition asking them to stop.

"Basically wage theft means that they’re taking away what little they’re giving us," said Alvarez, who makes $9.75 an hour.

A 2010 report from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Urban Economic Development found that 26 percent of low-wage, front-line workers in the Chicago area reported being paid less than minimum wage in the week before being surveyed. Of those who had worked more than 40 hours in the previous week, 67 percent said they had not been paid properly for overtime work. The report also found that people of color and immigrants were more likely to have been victims of wage theft.

McDonald’s workers filed lawsuits in three states earlier this year, accusing employers of taking time off their time cards and failing to pay overtime, among other allegations.

“People know when they’re being ripped off; they don’t identify it, though, as this big-picture issue," Kader said. "When you talk to workers, they say 'Oh, it’s because my boss didn’t like me.' … This is a routine thing at the industrial level. This is not a personal reason.”

A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association disagreed, saying that most employers pay their workers fairly.

“We fully support compliance with all wage and hour laws, and if there were to be a case of divergence from the law, it is certainly not indicative of the industry as a whole,” said Katie Laning Niebaum in an emailed statement.

Niebaum added that attempts to unionize restaurant workers in particular are “nothing more than labor groups’ self-interested attempts to boost their dwindling membership by targeting restaurant employees.”

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