Wage Theft, a ‘National Disgrace’

by Judith Valente

The dignity of work and workers’ rights are recurring motifs throughout Scripture. “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy workers, whether other Israelites or aliens,” says the Book of Deuteronomy. Pope Francis, in his address to Congress, stressed worker concerns, saying he spoke for “the thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread...to build a better life for their families.”

Even in the modern age of labor regulation, many American workers still don’t receive a full day’s pay for a full day’s work. These employees usually occupy the lowest rungs of the pay ladder, working in fast food, retail, garment assembly, poultry processing, the service industry and building trades.

Some companies cited are part of familiar national chains we might patronize on a regular basis. Take, for example, Papa John’s Pizza. Four of its franchises in New York recently agreed to pay close to $500,000 in back pay owed to workers. Before closing all its restaurants in 2014, Chicago-based HomeMade Pizza, once a favorite of TV personality Oprah Winfrey, was forced to pay back wages to six workers who said they were paid less than the minimum wage and were denied their final paycheck.

Helping workers at those two companies—and many others—is a small advocacy group working out of a fourth-floor office belonging to the Edgewater Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s north side. For 20 years, Interfaith Worker Justice has been a consistent, sometimes solitary voice investigating wage theft and other worker abuses.

Wage theft occurs when employers fail to pay the legal minimum wage or overtime, force workers to work off the clock, withhold tips or final paychecks and misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying payroll taxes, workers’ compensation and other benefits. Interfaith Worker Justice estimates that about $50 billion in wage theft occurs each year. Executive Director Rudy Lopez calls it “a national disgrace.”