Dear David: It’s Called Theft

Question:

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

Answer:

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 complaints about 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.

The first step in protecting yourself from wage theft is to keep REALLY good records of your pay, hours worked and other information. Here are some examples of the kind of information to track.

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.

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Dear David: Overloaded, Overheated

Question:

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

Answer:

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.

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Dear David: It’s Not the Fifties Anymore

Question:

In my office there are three of us with exactly the same job description. There are two women and one man. None of us do everything listed in the job description, but the man is treated as a professional and the women are treated as the clerical staff. The women are the ones who have been given the additional duties of answering the phone, opening the mail, creating the files, obtaining the information on new vendors and updating the computer. We recently had a meeting where additional clerical assignments were given to the female employees, but the man was not included. This just doesn’t seem right. I have contacted the HR department, and the answer I was given is that the manager can assign any task he wants to anyone (and all other duties as may be assigned), and perhaps he should rewrite the job description.

— Not your secretary, Kansas

Answer:

Mad Men takes place decades ago, but it sounds like your workplace is still stuck there.

This isn’t just an interpersonal issue—it could be a legal one. Here’s what an attorney had to say:

From a legal standpoint, it sounds like this could be grounds for a sex discrimination action.  In general, a sex discrimination claim requires proving that an employee was treated unfavorably because of the employee’s sex.  While discrimination can be difficult to prove, there certainly seems to be reason to believe that you and your female co-worker are being given less favorable (and stereotypically “female”) job duties because of your sex.

Because litigation is expensive and there would not be a lot of money at stake in a case about the assignment of job duties, you are probably better off trying to resolve this informally with management – but you should be clear that your belief is that the way work is being assigned is unlawful sex discrimination.  If you are retaliated against in any way for raising this concern, that itself would be grounds for legal action.  If you do ultimately find it necessary to take legal action to enforce your rights, your first step would be to file a charge with the EEOC(or a similar agency in your state).

Don’t forget these three important steps: document, document, document. In any legal situation and many other circumstances, good records with dates and specifics are vital.

Here’s something else worth noting: collective bargaining agreements often contain provisions about job duties or discrimination that would allow the union to file a grievance on the employee’s behalf in a circumstance like this, rather than requiring the employee to take the expensive step of filing a lawsuit. This is another example of the strength that comes from being organized.

Mad Men is a fun show to watch but it’s a lousy place to live. You don’t have to put up with it.

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