Among the harmful yet off-the-radar policies to come out of the Trump administration is the ongoing rollback of fair labor regulations at the US Department of Labor. States and cities can, and should, step into the void to protect residents.
Massachusetts has done that, at least in the areas most prone to labor abuse. For instance, Attorney General Maura Healey recently released her office’s annual Labor Day report on companies and industries in the state that violate the state’s wage and labor laws, by failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime or misclassifying employees as independent contractors, among other violations. In the last fiscal year, Healey’s office was able to recover $6 million in stolen wages for Massachusetts workers and $2.5 million in penalties assessed to problem companies. Overall, fees and recovered wages almost tripled over the previous year.
Not surprisingly, the construction and restaurant sectors emerged as the most problematic when it comes to wage theft. It’s not surprising, because those industries rely heavily on immigrant labor: In the case of construction, it’s been a boom time for subcontracting and labor brokering, while in restaurants, it’s mostly low-skilled or unskilled jobs with high turnover that leave workers vulnerable.
Healey’s strategy of aggressively going after scofflaw companies, coupled with more community outreach in several languages and extensive wage theft clinics, has yielded dividends. But there’s obviously still room for improvement: In Massachusetts, wage theft is estimated at $700 million per year. And mixed with the good news from Healey’s office is an alarming development: While the dollar amount recouped has gone up, Healey’s office received fewer overall complaints than in years prior, suggesting that the anti-immigrant climate in the country has left at least some workers afraid to come to authorities, and thus even more vulnerable to wage theft or labor abuses.
At the municipal level, a handful of cities in Massachusetts, including Boston and Chelsea, have enacted wage theft ordinances that allow them to deny permits or revoke existing ones for companies found to owe back pay, among other measures.
Enforcing existing laws is a start, but there is also a need for sensible legislative fixes. State Senator Sal DiDomenico and state Representative Aaron Michlewitz have introduced a bill to increase accountability and deter wage theft. One quick, easy fix included in the bill streamlines the enforcement power of Healey’s office to bring wage theft cases to superior court and seek civil damages, the way her attorneys enforce consumer protection and environmental cases.
Other aspects of the legislation, though, may need refinement. The current bill would allow the attorney general’s office to issue stop-work orders if clear evidence of wage theft is found, and would extend liability to contractors who unknowingly hire subcontractors who violate wage laws. The business community heavily opposed similar legislation last year, and the bill should provide safeguards to ensure that honest contractors aren’t punished for others’ crimes, and that in all cases the punishment fits the crime.
By the same token, though, builders and restaurateurs need to understand that doing nothing isn’t acceptable. Despite laudable efforts by the attorney general and local officials, too many employers still get away with wage theft because victims know that winning justice is an arduous process. The Legislature has a key role in putting more teeth in the law and delivering swifter justice to businesses that exploit their workers.