By Hassan Mirza
In 2014, the Buffalo Bills’ cheerleading team, the Buffalo Jills, brought a lawsuit alleging that the Bills purposefully misclassified the women as independent contractors to avoid paying them a legal wage. The suit is still ongoing, but the Buffalo Jills have one major advantage over many others who claim wage theft: If they win in court, the Bills are likely to pay up. That is not the case for many low-wage workers who go to court to recover money stolen by their employers.
The United States suffers from an epidemic of wage theft, which is the illegal practice of not paying workers for all their work. Some common examples of wage theft include forcing workers to work “off the clock,” stealing workers’ tips and not paying the minimum wage or overtime. Wage theft is so common that it exceeds bank, gas station and convenience store robberies. In 2009, for example, the combined value of these types of robberies totaled $56 million, nearly $130 million less than the amount lost to wage theft.
In New York, the average low-wage worker loses $2,634 per year in unpaid wages. Fully 64 percent of low-wage workers have some amount of pay stolen out of their paychecks by their employers every week. Moreover, New York State loses an estimated $134 million in lost income tax revenue each year. Low-wage workers could reinvest these stolen wages into the economy as consumers. The state could use the increased tax revenue to rebuild its infrastructure and fund social programs.
So why do employers keep getting away with wage theft? One big problem is that it is easy for unscrupulous employers to avoid the consequences of their illegal activity. When confronted by a lawsuit, many employers simply close down, sometimes opening up their business under a different name to avoid paying their workers, or they surreptitiously hide assets to avoid paying a judgment.
However, there is a solution. In June 2013, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal introduced the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill. The bill establishes a “wage lien” so that workers can put a hold on employers’ property until their owed wages are paid.
It also allows workers to “attach” or hold an employer’s property prior to the resolution of a case that claims unpaid wages so that the employer cannot hide or transfer assets before a court resolves the claim.
A coalition of workers’ centers and other like-minded organizations are working to get the SWEAT bill passed to make it easier to collect from fly-by-night employers who steal wages from employees.
Elected officials should take this opportunity to do the right thing by passing the SWEAT bill to protect hardworking New Yorkers from being cheated out of their wages.
Hassan Mirza is a law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law and a member of the Community Justice Clinic, which is a part of the coalition advocating for the SWEAT bill.