Pittsburgh Gets Real

Congress working on legislation to help workers recover stolen wages

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Millions of workers are losing billions of dollars in stolen wages.

It’s called wage theft, and it happens when companies force employees to work off the clock or deny workers overtime pay.

A recent study from the National Employment Law Project shows more than 4.6 million workers have experienced wage theft in the last year alone. Many of them are women and minorities who are making less than $13 an hour.

“People feel voiceless and powerless, because they don’t have a backup from anybody,” said Francisco Esparza, council representative for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Esparza said that’s how it felt starting his career in construction about 10 years ago. He said he was working in what he calls an “underground economy,” where he was paid in cash or checks without a pay stub.

“Some of these subcontractors, I worked for weeks and never got paid,” he said.

In 2019, Esparza was part of a class-action lawsuit against a contractor for unpaid wages, unpaid overtime and workplace fraud. Esparza and hundreds of other workers won that lawsuit, but most workers aren’t as lucky.

“This is not only bad for workers, but it puts honest businesses that abide by the law (at) a competitive disadvantage,” said Rep. Alma Adams, (D-N.C.).

Democrats want to hold more companies accountable through the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act. It would increase federal penalties for violations, require pay stubs and help workers recover stolen wages.

Right now, Esparza said trying to recover stolen wages is a very difficult, complicated process.

“You need to get a lot of proof, and it gets to the point where people get overwhelmed with trying to get all this information that they never collected or kept those proof,” said Esparza.

Some Republicans believe this proposal would hurt small businesses that are doing the right thing.

“This legislation would then impose crushing penalties on employers for not being able to effectively navigate the maze of red tape it intends to create. This is nothing short of entrapment,” said Rep. Fred Keller, (R-Pa.).

Instead of increasing penalties, some lawmakers want the Department of Labor to provide more compliance training to businesses.

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