Rep. Golden stands up to corporate lobby to fight wage theft

Rep. Golden stands up to corporate lobby to fight wage theft

A new bill introduced by House Assistant Majority Leader Jared Golden would crack down on wage theft by unethical employers in Maine. The bill is designed to address a widespread problem, especially for low-wage workers, and one that’s difficult to improve given the power imbalance stacked against the employees who are often targeted for wage violations.

“Everyone deserves to be paid for every minute that they work,” said Golden in testimony before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development last week. “Since the Great Recession a large portion of the recovery has accumulated at the very top with the wealthiest one percent, while wages for too many low-income and middle-class households have remained stagnant and have been outpaced by inflation. At a time like this, policies to ensure that workers are paid what they’ve earned and that they receive overtime as required by the law should be a priority.”

Surveys of low wage workers have found that nearly two-thirds report pay violations on a weekly basis, with more than a quarter not earning the full minimum wage for the time they work. Investigations by the federal Department of Labor have found similar, widespread abuses. Wage theft rates are even higher for certain classes of employees, including restaurant workers, truck drivers and caregivers for children and seniors.

“In short, the wage theft crisis is not only severe, it is pervasive. It affects industries and occupations across our economy, and while it is especially severe among our nation’s low-wage workforce, it is not limited to those sectors,” explained Laura Huizar, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

Rep. Golden’s bill would increase fines for wage theft from the current rate of between $100 and $500 per violation, amounts that haven’t been increased since 1975, to $500 for the first offense and $2,500 for subsequent violations. It would also guarantee the right of wronged employees to file civil actions in court.

While wage theft occurs broadly across the economy, women, people of color and immigrants are disproportionately affected. Sister Patricia Pora, director of Hispanic pastoral outreach for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, related to the committee several specific examples of her parishioners experiencing egregious violations, including stories from Maine housekeepers, construction workers and agricultural employees.

“A farmer came to Portland to look for a husband and wife couple to work on his farm for the summer.  The man worked in the barns and his wife worked in the house. They were paid the first two weeks, but later they were told that they would get the total sum at the end. In September, they were brought to Portland and dropped on Congress Street without pay and told that their work was not ‘satisfactory.’ They both had worked the entire summer at this farm, but did not know the name of the town or of the farmer,” said Pora.

The bill is opposed by an alliance of corporate lobby groups, including the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Chamber lobbyist Peter Gore called the legislation “a slap in the face” to Maine businesses.

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

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