What if we had a minimum wage, but nobody felt constrained to pay it? What if day-long shifts never came with a meal break? What if getting injured at work yielded no possibility of workers compensation, but a very real risk of losing your job? What if there was no paper trail - no pay stubs or other documentation - to show that any of this was happening? And what if complaining to the boss about any of it meant getting fired, so no one dared to say a word?
We're not describing workplaces in China or Central America: these are the conditions prevalent in Chicago's low-wage labor market. A new study (pdf) from the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago documents how "employment and labor laws are regularly and systematically violated, impacting a significant part of the low-wage labor force in Chicago and suburban Cook County."
A rigorous survey of 1,140 workers in Chicagoland's low wage industries revealed an astounding scope of violations: nearly half of employees had been victims of wage theft in the past week, seeing their employers steal an average 16 percent of their earnings. Working people making an average of just $16,753 a year lost $2,595 of that to corrupt bosses. Extrapolating to employees throughout the metro area, it's a loss of $7.3 million a week to workers, their families, and their local communities. African-American and Latino workers and immigrants were the most frequently victimized.
Unfortunately, this isn't a unique brand of Chicago corruption. Parallel studies in New York and Los Angeles found similar patterns of egregious workplace violations. And while the nation's three largest cities were the only ones included in this research, the problem is unlikely to be confined to their borders. No wonder the authors argue: "the sheer breadth of the problem, spanning key industries in the economy, as well as its profound impact on workers and their communities, entailing significant economic hardship, demands urgent attention."
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis's newly launched wage and hour enforcement and awareness campaign is a significant step in the right direction, but a severe well-documented local problem also demands solutions at the city and state levels. Progress Illinois reports on wage theft legislation making its way through the state legislature, but also warns of budget cuts at the Illinois Department of Labor. The working poor Chicagoans getting robbed on the job deserve better.