Frequently Asked Questions
What is wage theft?
Wage theft covers a variety of infractions that occur when workers do not receive their legally or contractually promised wages.
Common forms of wage theft are:
- non-payment of overtime
- not giving workers their last paycheck after a worker leaves a job
- not paying for all the hours worked
- not paying minimum wage
- not paying a worker at all
What laws are broken in wage theft cases?
Most commonly wage theft is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provides for a federal minimum wage and allows states to set their own (higher) minimum wage, and requires employers to pay time and a half for all hours worked above 40 hours per week.
Under the Davis-Bacon Act, workers being paid by a contractor or subcontractor of a federal government contract are entitled to receive the prevailing wage for that work in the city or region of the U.S. where the work is done. Prevailing wages, which are calculated by the US Department of Labor, are higher than minimum wage. Many federal contractors simply ignore this law.
Wage theft may also involve violations of tax laws, through misclassification of employees as independent contractors. When a worker is called an independent contractor, the employer does not pay their share of federal taxes.
Wage theft is endemic, and no group of workers is immune, including workers earning good wages. It is more likely to occur in non-union workplaces. Union workers generally receive pay according to their negotiated contract, and any wage theft would be challenged by the union. Immigrant and native born workers alike have their wages stolen, though low wage workers are particularly vulnerable.
Agriculture, poultry processing, janitorial services, restaurant work, garment manufacturing, long term care, home health care and retail are the industries with the most reported cases of wage theft.
In what types of workplace or industry does wage theft occur?
Wage theft is a national problem. Worker Centers report serious problems with wage theft in the Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, South, and West Coast.
Is wage theft concentrated in a particular region?
There are over 200 worker centers throughout the country, small grassroots organizations that are at the forefront in wage enforcement actions.
There are two main routes that workers and their advocates use to try to recover wages that were stolen. The first path is direct action-getting a group of workers to confront their boss or tell the business' customers what is happening. The second route is through lawsuits, sometimes class action suits against large employers.
You can find an interactive map listing worker centers as well as other organizations involved in the fight against wage theft here.
Where do workers turn if their wages have been stolen?
While many reforms are needed, there are some specific changes that can be made by the new leadership of the DOL, and there are changes that require new legislation by Congress.
Case-by-case resolution of individual complaints is not enough. The DOL must engage in targeted investigations of industries and employers where wage theft is rampant, in partnership with community organizations and congregations that workers trust, groups that know who the criminal employers are.
Workers need a consistently proactive, transparent, and accountable Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.
What kind of solution is needed?
Mandate that employers give workers pay stubs, so that they can accurately calculate their hours and earnings and have a record if they need to prove they were cheated.
Fix the statute of limitations on wage claims, which currently has many cases thrown out because the DOL has not been able to resolve them in two years.
Create mandatory minimum penalties for employers who repeatedly violate the law.
Provide resources to community organizations to partner with the DOL to eliminate wage theft and win back wages.
What type of legislation is needed?
Many organizations are working on passing state and local legislation. Click to view an interactive map detailing current and past local/state legislative campaigns.
What legislation is being worked on?
If you're a worker and you think you may have been a victim of wage theft, click here for resources to report wage theft >>
If you're a worker center or worker justice organization, click here for resources to fight wage theft >>
If you're a member of the general public and you want to help, click here >>