My employer may have shorted my pay over the past three years by more than $9,400—yet I am told the only way I can recover the money is through a civil lawsuit. I live in Ohio, but the company is in Georgia, so I have to file the lawsuit in Georgia. Any suggestions or alternatives you can offer?
— Coming up short, Ohio
When somebody gets their wallet stolen on the street, or jewelry and electronics stolen from their home, everyone gets that it’s a crime. But what if someone steals from your paycheck? It’s called “wage theft,” and it’s a growing problem for many workers.
A civil lawsuit is an option to recover unpaid wages—but it’s not the only option. Federal wage and hour laws apply to nearly all employers in the United States. Additionally, states may put in place and enforce higher wage and hour standards and stronger protections for workers in their state. Therefore, victims of wage theft—or any other wage and hour violation—should explore both state and federal remedies that might be available.
The Department of Labor has a Wage and Hour Division, which accepts and investigates complaintsabout wage theft. Wage and hour enforcement was a priority of the previous secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, and organizations that work against wage theft are encouraged by Thomas Perez, the nominee for the next secretary of labor. Additionally, several states have administrative agencies that investigate and prosecute wage and hour violations—California even has officers who investigate wage and hour violations for possible criminal prosecution.
In many cases a legal approach or lawsuit can address specific wage theft violations. But there’s another important element here—strength in numbers. Workers who are organized in unions have the protection of the law AND a collective bargaining agreement that makes sure they’re paid fairly and that there’s a remedy available when they’re not.
This is an issue that affects a lot of people, and organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice are active in raising awareness and helping people affected by wage theft.
Going to court is an option in an individual case, but we can’t just rely on lawsuits to fix the larger problem of wage theft. In our workplaces and in our communities, we need to come together to make sure companies are doing the right thing and paying their workers what they’re owed. Theft is theft, and we need tougher laws to deal with it.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), its corporate backers and extremist Missouri lawmakers may have won the first round in their drive to silence working people with a paycheck deception bill, when the House gave it final approval (86-69) earlier this week.
But thanks to a strong mobilization by Missouri working families and their unions and allies, the close vote—that included several Republicans who voted against the bill—means that Gov. Jay Nixon’s (D) expected veto cannot be overridden. It takes a two-thirds majority vote to override.
Paycheck deception laws, like the one proposed in Missouri, create burdensome restrictions that interfere with union members’ rights to participate in the political and legislative process. These laws also weaken the ability of working people to advance working-family issues such as legislation that would create jobs and stop job outsourcing.
After the bill’s passage, Mike Louis, secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO, told reporters:
This bill is all politics. Not one Missouri worker testified in favor of S.B. 29, and that’s because this bill has nothing to do with helping working people. Public workers in this state have faced an uphill fight for collective bargaining rights and are 50 in the nation in pay.
In fact, dozens of Show-Me State workers created a Tumblr blog, Working Voices, and recorded video messages speaking out against paycheck deception. Union, community and faith activists were a major presence at the state Capitol in Jefferson City during hearings and votes and helped shine a spotlight on the anti-workers’ legislation through actions in several cities and towns.
Bradley Harmon, the president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 6355, said:
This law is about protecting right-wing extremists and their corporate buddies, not about protecting anyone’s paycheck. That’s why we call it ‘paycheck deception.’
Trying her best to sound like a Hallmark card, Rep. Virginia Foxx argued on a local North Carolina news station in favor of a bill that would end overtime pay for hourly workers as we know it: “It’s important to have enough money from your paycheck,” she told WFMY News, “but money can’t buy time. Many parents would like to have the time with their children.”
If you’re an hourly worker, scheduling is a huge issue. And while the idea of time off in lieu of time-and-a-half overtime pay sounds tempting, this bill does not resolve any problems you may have with your schedule. The bill clearly states that employers can deny requests for time off if it is not made “within a reasonable period” or if your time off “unduly disrupts the operations of the employer.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx is right about one thing: Many parents would like to have more time to spend with their children. But under the Orwellian-named “Working Families Flexibility Act,” your boss still decides when you can take that time and when you can’t. Meanwhile, he or she can work you 50 or 60 hours a week and pocket the overtime you would have otherwise received.
Yes, the option of overtime instead of comp time still remains. But there is nothing stopping your boss from treating you differently (giving you a bad schedule, straight-up firing you) if you take that option. “The worker shouldn’t have to have that sort of pressure on them,” said Catherine Medlock-Walton, our Member Coordinator in North Carolina.
So don’t be fooled by this talk of “family” and “children” from politicians like Rep. Foxx.
If they truly cared about our families, they wouldn’t block bills allowing workers to earn sick paid days, and take time off to care for a sick child.
If they truly cared about our families, they wouldn’t oppose increases in the minimum wage, so parents wouldn’t have to work two or three low-wage jobs in order to care for their children.
And if they truly cared about our families, they would not have voted 33 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which vastly improves the ability of parents and children alike to afford health insurance and not be denied for preexisting conditions.
There truly are pieces of legislation which would help working families have flexibility. Unfortunately, and confusingly, the so-called “Working Families Flexibility Act” is not one of them.
HR 1406, the hilariously named, “Working Families Flexibility Act,” would replace time-and-a-half pay for hours worked past 40 hours with a “comp time” system that favors the employer. As the video above explains, “comp time” sounds like you’re getting time off to spend as you see fit, but in fact allows your boss to decide when you take your days off – and when you don’t.
If your boss decides that your request for days off “unduly disrupts the operations of the employer” they have the right to reject it. If your boss decides that your request was not made “within a reasonable period,” you can’t take your vacation.
So instead of getting paid extra for working more than 40 hours a week, as we’ve done for decades, you get some days off that your employer has complete control over. And yes, you can still take the option of overtime pay, but what’s to stop your boss from treating you differently because of it? (Nothing.)
To review: The Working Families Flexibility Act provides less flexibility to working families. Classic bill naming!
What’s sickening about this vote in the House is that three Democrats voted for the bill along with all but 8 Republicans: Tim Matheson of Utah, Henry Cuellar of Texas, and Collin Peterson of Minnesota. The House Republican caucus has continuously demonstrated their lack of concern with American workers (33 votes to repeal Obamacare, anyone?) and it’s a shame that these three so-called “representatives” decided to cross the aisle on this harmful, misguided bill.
But in general, we should keep this vote in mind next time those 223 members of Congress come back around asking to get “rehired” in November 2014. After all, Congress operates less than half of the year, and yet they earn an exorbitant salary for their troubles – paid by you, the taxpayer.
They might think that our bosses should completely control how we spend our time. Don’t forget, though: we are their bosses. And if they don’t change their attitude and their work ethic, a pink slip might be in order.
The sun was shining in Salem, Oregon for the May 1st rally for workers’ and immigrants’ rights, where a diverse and lively crowd of over three thousand gathered and cheered. Chants of “Si Se Puede” echoed off the capital building onto a sea of families, students, and activists waving American and rainbow flags, as well as handmade signs reading “Keep Families Together” and thank you’s to the governor.
Governor John Kitzhaber joined the May Day March to sign into law Senate Bill 833, the Safe Roads Act, a bill that provides access to driver’s licenses to all Oregon workers, including immigrants. This bill ensures that everyone in Oregon has the ability to drive themselves to work, school and everywhere else our busy lives take us, legally and safely. The Governor signed the bill into law on the steps of the capitol, a historic first, cheered on by many voices, including the Oregon AFL-CIO, CAUSA, PCUN, labor unions, faith leaders, law enforcement, and Working America.
Governor Kitzhaber said:
Today I signed into law a bill that not only improves our public safety, but helps Oregonians integrate into and contribute to our society and economy…
This bill is motivated by a larger vision – one where all Oregonians deserve and get their shot at the American dream…
Where we are creating secure jobs with upward income mobility, and supporting safe, secure communities where people have a sense of common purpose and commitment to one another….
We are celebrating the promise of a better future, for every Oregonian. And we are celebrating that our democracy is made stronger – in fact, our democracy is made possible – because we share that belief in the American Dream and are working together to achieve it.
As of January 1, 2014, tens of thousands of immigrants – and many elderly and homeless people – who are unable to show the correct documentation living in Oregon will be eligible to obtain a four year driver’s license.
In the weeks before the rally, Working America organizers talked to nearly 1,300 community members about this important bill, and many wrote letters to their representatives to express their support for safety and equality.
Member Alex C. in Portland wrote, “This is a common sense approach to the real life needs of people in our state, ALL of the residents and employees of our great state.”
Lisa A. in Hillsboro gave a parent’s perspective. “As a mother, it’s important to me to know that all drivers on the road are able to obtain and have insurance, to help keep my children and our community as a whole safe,” she wrote.
Our members and our allies continue to stand together to continue the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, and we thank our representatives who heard our voices loud and clear and voted yes on the Safe Roads Act. ¡Si Se Puede!
In a perfect gift for mothers, just short of Mother’s Day, House Republicans have once again introduced legislation with a charming title and a potentially devastating impact for working women and families. According to the bill’s sponsors, the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” or H.R. 1406, would give employees the “freedom” to determine work schedules and time off. In reality, this bill would provide more work and less pay.
Working families need and deserve greater flexibility in meeting family and work needs. However, the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, doesn’t do anything to promote greater flexibility for working families. This legislation, proposed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Martha Roby, would allow employers to pay their workers nothing extra for overtime work, other than the potentially empty promise of compensatory time—”comp time”—that can only be used at the employer’s discretion. H.R. 1406, cloaked in the positive language of “choice,” is really just another attempt by Republicans to get rid of paid overtime.
Backers of the bill are proudly calling this legislation “family friendly” and touting its benefits for working women. But we fear they are underestimating women’s ability to know a falsehood when they hear one. The supporters of this bill claim that employers need more “flexibility” to manage work schedules and give workers time off. But employers already have the flexibility to schedule any kind of flexible work hours and to give their employees paid or unpaid leave whenever they want. By giving employers the flexibility not to pay overtime, this “comp time” bill is just another Republican gimmick that would ultimately erode hourly workers’ ability to both pay their bills and care for their families.
At least 63 million private-sector workers are required to be paid time-and-a-half for hours worked beyond the 40-hour workweek. Under H.R. 1406, workers who work overtime would never see a bump in their paycheck and would earn less take-home pay. The “choice” to take time off sounds nice, but as many working parents and people of color know too well, calling something a “choice” assumes there are viable options. For many working families, taking home less pay at the end of the day means less money to cover rent, education costs, medical bills and other living expenses. The “choice” to take unpaid time off is not a choice at all.
The 40-hour workweek, as we know it, came from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. To ensure that workers can spend more time away from work, the FLSA discourages employers from demanding overtime by making overtime more expensive. By contrast, H.R. 1406 would encourage employers to demand longer hours because overtime is made less expensive. That’s because employers would be able to pay workers nothing at all for overtime work at the time the work is performed and could schedule comp time off at no extra cost to them (for example, during less busy periods when co-workers can pick up the slack). So, when employees request comp time, they essentially become lenders to employers. For example, a worker earning $12 an hour and banking the maximum amount of hours (160) would be giving an interest-free loan of $1,920 to his or her employer.
At a time when workers are already working harder for less, those who rely on overtime to make ends meet could face even more financial challenges. The kind of support that working families are looking for would be available by strengthening their ability to collectively bargain on the job for higher wages, safer workplaces, better health care and paid time off options. Working families deserve better than H.R. 1406.
I have received an unsatisfactory review and have been told verbally that I have six months to try to do better, and then I might get a “reward.” My job does not seem to be in jeopardy because my boss didn’t say I have six months to improve or be fired. Yet I’m not sure I know what would count as improvement in his eyes. Nothing has been written down; there are no specific benchmarks or measurable goals. I have a sense of some things I can do because of the things he talked with me about, but leaving it up in the air like this makes me nervous. What should I do?
— Unsatisfied, Idaho
Imagine for a minute that you’re taking an archery class. On the first day, your instructor hands you a bow and some arrows and says, “Hit the target, and you’ll win a prize.” The only problem is he doesn’t tell you where the target is, so you don’t even know which direction to shoot. After taking this class for a few weeks, you’ll get frustrated, and maybe someone else will get hurt. Meanwhile, you almost certainly won’t win any kind of prize. And you definitely won’t get any better at archery.
That’s the situation your boss is putting you in: he’s telling you to hit a target but not telling you where it is. And, as you’ve said, you can’t just walk out like you could if you were taking an archery class with a bad teacher. This is your job, and if your boss expects you to get better, he needs to tell you what direction you need to be shooting in.
Now, you’re right to be nervous about what’s going to happen. Many people think that they have an automatic legal right to their jobs, but the problem is that for the most part, there isn’t one. And this goes for your right to “rewards” as well. Your question illustrates the danger of being—as most American employees are—an at-will employee.
At-will employees are totally at the whim of their employer in terms of promotions, demotions, transfers, raises, increases or decreases in hours, and even being fired. Shocking, isn’t it? Indeed, because some courts recognize “implied employment contracts,” at-will employers have an incentive to be vague in their requirements and expectations so that an employee cannot claim he or she was promised a reward or continued employment if certain conditions were met.
Chances are, you are not alone in getting this kind of treatment. Have you talked with your co-workers about your situation? Is anyone else wondering about their job security or eligibility for rewards? By reaching out, you may find some partners for an effort to reduce everyone’s uncertainty.
In the end, if a manager wants you to improve, it’s his or her job to tell you what improvement looks like. Going to work shouldn’t feel like you’re shooting an arrow at an invisible target.
Last week, Walmart said it would speed up its plan to hire returning military veterans that it had announced in January. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says Walmart’s latest move “is more about public relations than honoring our heroes.”
We owe it to our returning veterans to make sure they are treated as the heroes they are, rather than as symbols used to ‘greenwash’ Walmart’s eroding brand. After facing enemies abroad, is an $8.81 an hour part-time job the best we can offer returning veterans?
I have been working with my company for more than six years. Conditions have become unbearable lately. The workload has increased, but reliable assistance in the form of additional workers hasn’t followed. The money we get is not worth the work put in. Our office is hot all the time despite complaints about it. We’re scheduled to work extra time without our consent. We are all beyond frustrated with our work conditions.
— Had it up to here, Kansas
You’re totally right to be upset about the way you’re being treated.
First, it’s important to point out that getting overworked isn’t just an inconvenience—it’s a serious and growing problem. It’s a trend across the economy as companies try to do more with fewer employees. (Read this great Mother Jones article for an in-depth look at the issue.)
Did you know that the average worker today works 181 hours per year more than they would have back in 1979? This escalation is slow but steady, and it’s reached the point where a worker today is working the equivalent of 4.5 additional weeks per year. So where did the reward for all of that extra productivity go? Not into your pocket.
Any one of the complaints you list here would be enough for most people to get frustrated at work. Add them all together and it’s no wonder you have reached a point beyond frustration. But the good news is that it sounds like you already know that you are not alone. So seize the day! You and your co-workers can help each other.
One idea is to survey your co-workers to find out what’s bothering them the most. Asking open-ended questions is more likely to surface what others think and help everyone understand what’s most important. If you are going to do something about it, it’s helpful to know why it matters to each and every one of you. It’s also a good idea to keep a record and not to use your work computer or email.
It should go without saying, but: you are also probably better off not to do any of this around your boss. There will be a time to talk to your boss, but it’s best not to tip your hand too early.
Once you know where everybody stands and have a strong majority all on one page, it will be time to decide what to do next. Here’s my recommendation: check back here. In just a few weeks we’ll be launching some online tools and resources you can use to review options for next steps. You will be able to walk through steps you can take to make your life at work better.
What do diet industry workers, music video dancers, and fashion models have in common? It’s the labor movement.
Probably wasn’t your first guess. But workers in these three primarily female sectors have been in motion over the past six months, organizing and advocating for better wages, working conditions, and above all respect at the workplace.
While the legislation changes, what’s really exciting is that working people are creating their new forms of organization that they can operate in to make change. We’re beginning to see, like Working America that exercises power in a lot of new ways and has 3 million members and growing – but also in these small bubbling up forms of resistance.
The women who worked at Weight Watchers who weren’t getting paid enough for the weekly sessions that they were leading, they organized. The Models Alliance in New York which just started. The dancers on videos who organized and became a union. It’s when that starts happening, when there’s spontaneous organizing – and some of them will form a union like the video dancers and some of them will just resist – that’s what’s creating a new sense out there.
You might not have heard about these events in the news, so let’s go through them.
Weight Watchers is an enormously profitable diet company, whose CEO David Kirchhoff made nearly $3 million in 2011. But the company’s backbone is made up of the “leaders,” who run the more than 50,000 weekly in-person meetings with Weight Watchers participants. Now, after years of low pay and wage violations, these leaders are organizing around better pay. “We are not working for a charity or a nonprofit corp,” wrote one leader, “This is a multimillion-dollar company with enough cash to advertise relentlessly on TV and pay celebrities tons of money to lose weight.” The company recently settled a $6.2 million lawsuit in California around minimum wage violations.
Music videos are nothing without their dancers, but many of these employees were forced to work 20 or more hours at a time in hazardous conditions with questionable – if any – workplace protections. In June, the Dancers’ Alliance, an affiliation of music video dancers in three large cities, joined with SAF-AFTRA to create the first-ever industry-wide contract to cover dancers and other performers. The contract, according to SAF-AFTRA leader Randall Himes “gives performers the working conditions they deserve, while also recognizing the realities of the industry.”
In May, a few months after we met with editors at Vogue, all 19 international editions of the magazine agreed not to hire models under 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. I think that language is a little problematic, but considering how resistant the industry is to change, it’s a really significant step.