Business & Tech

Latest roadside attraction: wage theft

22billboard- A digital billboard being funded by Community Labor United will keep a minute-by-minute tally of wage theft in Massachusetts. (Community Labor United)

Community Labor United

A digital billboard funded by Community Labor United will keep a minute-by-minute tally of wage theft in Massachusetts.

Commuters on Interstate 93 will soon have a new way to kill time when they’re stuck in traffic north of Boston: watching the amount of money Massachusetts workers are reportedly being cheated out of tick upward.

A labor group pushing legislation to crack down on unpaid wages, known as wage theft, is putting up two digital billboards on I-93 Thursday — one facing south at Exit 30 and the other facing north at Exit 36 — that will keep a running tally. The count will begin at $333,698,630, the amount workers in the state are already owed so far this year, according to Community Labor United, and will go up by $1,331.81 every minute.

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The Boston organization is funding the billboards in conjunction with a new website, a social media campaign, and a radio spot.

The billboards are meant to raise awareness of a growing problem as unscrupulous employers increasingly misclassify workers as independent contractors in an attempt to get around overtime and health insurance rules and avoid paying taxes. Wage theft has become rampant across the economy, according to the US Department of Labor, and is especially pervasive in the construction industry.

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Community Labor United estimates that misclassification of workers costs the state $346 million a year in unpaid payroll and unemployment insurance taxes.

“I don’t think that most people understand the impact on our local economy,” said executive director Darlene Lombos.

A bill currently under consideration by the Senate Committee on Ways and Means would hold lead employers responsible for the actions of their subcontractors and give the state the power to issue stop-work orders at job sites where wage violations are occurring.

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Business groups have pushed back against the proposals, saying they would be an unfair burden that could have serious repercussions for employers.

The wage-theft billboards, which will rotate with other ads, will be up for at least two weeks — during which time the tally will have increased by $26.8 million.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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