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Wage Theft: Thou Shalt Not Steal From Your Workers

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As we enter this holiday season, Americans are reminded of the massive suffering that millions of people are experiencing right now, with unemployment, foreclosures, poverty, hunger and homelessness. But Wall Street, which is celebrating a year of record profits, never had it so good. Surely, their bonus checks overfloweth this season, with vast sums of money that no one could possibly believe they deserve. In contrast, the common folk never had it so bad, at least not since the first Great Depression, as what Americans are living through now surely must be the second.

To make things worse, as the wealthy bankers are propped up and subsidized by the government, everyday working people who have little as it is are robbed daily -- by their employers. Now is a better time than most to discuss the crisis of wage theft in the United States.

Unfortunately, the problem is common and widespread, and affects millions of workers each year. According to the organization Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), the average low wage worker loses $2,600 per year in unpaid wages. Further, three-quarters of low wage workers who work more than 40 hours a week are not paid the overtime the law requires. And millions of people are wrongly classified as independent contractors so businesses can avoid paying minimum wage, overtime and FICA tax, which amounts to stealing from workers as well as robbing the government. Wage theft forces its victims to choose between paying rent and buying food, and forces the government to cut important services. Righteous employers who play by the rules are placed at a competitive disadvantage.

On Nov. 18, IWJ kicked off a campaign to tackle the issue, with a National Day of Action Against Wage Theft. More than 35 groups across the country held rallies and events as part of the day of action. As the participants in this movement can attest, wage theft is as old as the scriptures, and the world's religions have long ago spoken out against the unethical, illegal and immoral practice. "Unfortunately, stealing wages from workers is nothing new. The Hebrew prophet Malachi in chapter 3, verse 5 proclaimed that God will be quick to testify against those who defraud laborers of their wages," said Kim Bobo, IWJ executive director. "Stealing wages was wrong then and it is wrong today."

Rev. Daniel Klawitter, chairperson of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice of Colorado, also addressed the biblical mandate against wage theft. He noted that in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, it states "you shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your lands or in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them. Otherwise they might cry to the lord against you and you would incur guilt."

Rev. Klawitter, who believes it is imperative that communities of faith address wage theft, noted that nearly half of day laborers are victims of the practice. We are trying to minister to folks in our congregations and our communities during a time of great economic turmoil and uncertainty," said Klawitter. "And we have to be clear as faith leaders that the practice of wage theft is a moral outrage and that it's our duty to care for our neighbors." He even recalled a heartwrenching story of a Denver man who was found abandoned in the streets. The worker had fallen from a roof and became seriously brain damaged. His employer, who had picked him up on a street corner, dropped him off in the dark to avoid taking responsibility for his well-being.

Rabbi Renée Bauer, Director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, decries the lack of enforcement and prosecution of wage theft cases by the government. She calls the fight against wage theft not merely a political, legal and economic issue, but a religious mandate. "Jewish tradition is clear that not paying workers what they are due in a timely fashion is a crime," Rabbi Bauer noted. "The Torah considers the lack or the delay of payment a form of theft and abuse, and the Talmud teaches that one who withholds an employee's wages is as though he deprived the worker of his life."

And wage theft is inextricably linked with the poor state of the economy and widespread deprivation. According to Bobo, while the religious community gives out turkeys to needy families every Thanksgiving, millions of poor families could actually afford to buy their own turkeys if they were paid the wages due to them under the law. That's food for thought for a nation struggling to find ways to jumpstart a troubled economy. "What better way to stimulate the economy, put more money back into neighborhood businesses than to actually ensure that workers are paid all their wages," she said.

There are efforts afoot to get a Stop Wage Theft Bill through Congress. Further, Rep. George Miller (D-IL) introduced HR 3303, the Wage Theft Prevention Act. The legislation would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act and give the Department of Labor more power to protect workers. It would let workers file private lawsuits while the federal government is investigating a claim. And the Act would also eliminate the statute of limitations that forces the feds to resolve a wage complaint in two years.

Meanwhile, thanks to bad economic times, voter disillusionment and the buying of elections, the House of Representatives is about to be taken over by the Tea Party-infused Republican Party. Scrooge arrived just in time for the holidays, with Social Darwinism, bootstraps, slashing and cutting as a prescription for all of our woes. And no doubt there will be an abundance of moralizing and self-righteous indignation in the lower chamber of our federal legislature, along with corporate greed and a shortage of caring for the needs of the least among us, much less solutions to make the poor whole. They would extend tax cuts to the wealthy as they preach fiscal responsibility. And they would cut healthcare and jobless benefits and label even any non-controversial attempts at restorative justice as communism, socialism and fascism.

Yet the struggle against this massive payroll robbery in America continues. This is part of a larger fight against the dramatic upward redistribution of wealth in recent decades, in which labor continually gets short shrift and business seems to hold all of the cards. But it is up to the people to make it right.

David A. Love is the Executive Editor of BlackCommentator.com, and a contributor to The Progressive Media Project and theGrio. He is based in Philadelphia and is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His blog is davidalove.com.

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