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If you haven’t heard the term "wage theft" being bandied about in state and local policy circles, it’s simply a matter of time. By creating an issue out of thin air to reinforce existing labor laws and strengthen their grassroots capacity, unions and their social justice activist allies are putting a new target on "bad employers" as they push wage theft laws in cities and states across the nation.
Wage theft is alleged to occur when workers are not paid the wages they are legally owed, either because employers violate minimum wage or overtime laws, or when employees are paid less than the wages they have agreed to contractually. Either way, these are existing laws with established consequences for violators.
As advocated by supporters, the most common elements of wage theft laws are enhanced legal remedies (including new rights of private action), shifting evidentiary burdens to employers, assigning liability for attorney fees to employers, and expanded damages claims. Additionally, many wage theft laws include disclosure requirements that can become a bureaucratic nightmare.
Perhaps the greatest benefit its supporters gain by initiating wage theft campaigns is the boost such efforts give to organizing supporters for not only the immediate effort, but future efforts to enact Big Labor’s priorities and to rally around its political candidates when the time comes. Just as minimum wage and paid sick leave have been used by left-leaning groups to build upon the grassroots activist infrastructure, wage theft is likely to be a policy trend for the foreseeable future.
Focusing on typically low-wage and low-skilled sectors, the prime industries being used to justify new wage theft laws are construction and retail. A recent Baltimore Sun piece used the plight of a convenience store clerk on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to illustrate what supporters say is a concerted effort by employers to cope with recessionary times by skirting wage laws. Although the c-store worker in question successfully recouped her back wages through the existing legal system, additional layers of regulations are nonetheless the goal of wage theft proponents.
Wage theft campaigns are most prominent at the local level. In 2010, Miami-Dade County became the first in the country to approve a wage theft ordinance, also called "wage recovery" in some instances. More recently, activity in Florida has continued with ordinances popping up in the Democratic strongholds of Alachua, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Labor and social justice groups have also taken their fight to localities across the country, including Seattle; San Francisco; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Chicago, which in January passed a law allowing the city to suspend or revoke the licenses of businesses that violate Illinois’ wage recovery law. Fortunately, several state legislatures are responding by taking steps to preempt local ordinances on this topic.
This new front in the labor movement’s image destruction campaign on the business community – with the service sector in its bull’s-eye – demands a focused and cohesive response from the convenience store community. Not only must the flaws in these policies be highlighted, so too must the deceptive motivation of its messenger.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service-sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.