Standing Up for Low Wage Workers

06/27/2013 03:05 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2013

It has been amazing to witness the fast food-worker strikes that have swept the country in the past few months. It started in New York in late November with a one-day strike against fast-food chains like McDonald's and Wendy's and has spread to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee.

Hundreds of hard-working men and women have staged one-day walkouts to demand better wages and the right to form a union. Their courage -- and that of car wash workers, domestics and others who have been fighting for better pay and working conditions -- is truly awe-inspiring.

One of the most shocking things that the workers have complained about is that their employers have been cheating them out of their full pay. These aren't isolated incidents.

A recent report commissioned by Fast Food Forward found that 84% of fast food workers surveyed said their employers had committed at least one form of wage theft in the past year. Wage theft includes failure to pay minimum wage, non-payment of overtime or being forced to work without pay either before or after their regular shift.

Wage theft in any industry is outrageous, but it is especially despicable in the $200 billion fast-food business, where some companies reap tens of millions of dollars in profits. Wendy's, for example, reported a net income of $26.39 million on revenues of $629.88 million in the fourth quarter of 2012 alone. The current median pay for fast food workers is $8.77 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And wage theft is not just an issue in the fast food industry. According to Make the Road NY, close to 80% of the car washes in the city are guilty of wage and hour violations. A campaign spearheaded by New York Communities for Change in Brooklyn has resulted in settlements totaling nearly $1 million in back wages for supermarket workers.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is taking on the issue by issuing subpoenas to one fast food parent company and looking at some franchisees here in New York City and taking on car wash owners as well.

To his credit, the attorney general has been cracking down on employers who exploit low-wage
workers by taking civil or criminal action against some two dozen companies found to have violated labor laws. It is important that these investigations continue vigorously and that any company found to have engaged in wage theft or other labor violations be prosecuted, civilly or criminally, to the fullest extent of the law.

Now the New York City Council is focusing on the issue. On June 27, the City Council is holding on a hearing on wage theft in the fast food industry.

Finally, after months and years of organizing, our elected officials are hearing us - the lowest-paid workers in New York need a raise.

But even that is not enough.

After 12 years of Bloomberg administration policies that favor businesses over workers -- such as opposing legislation that would provide paid sick leave and prevailing wages for all workers -- our next mayor must be fully committed to policies that fight poverty and create economic justice for all workers.

That means the next mayor must ensure that companies that engage in wage theft don't have a place here in New York. The next mayor must change contracting and subsidy policies so we don't roll out the welcome mat to these types of companies.

Businesses that engage in wage theft should be denied city contracts -- and those that have contracts, as do some car wash firms -- should lose those deals if they do not comply with labor laws.

It is one thing for businesses to make a healthy profit -- it is quite another for them do it on the backs of the hard-working people who make those profits possible.