Friday, February 19, 2010

D.C. Workers Demand an End to Wage Theft

DC's Hidden Crime: Washington, DC Workers Demand an End to Wage Theft

MAS Freedom Participates in Local Hearings on Major Economic Justice Issue

WASHINGTON, DC (MASNET) Feb. 19, 2010 - For many of us, the idea of theft in the workplace might mean that someone steals a pocketbook or a wallet from an unsuspecting co-worker. But the really pervasive crime at work is the ongoing theft of wages from millions of workers' paychecks by unscrupulous bosses.

On Thursday, February 18th, representatives from major faith and community service organizations in the greater Washington, DC area gathered to hear testimonies from working people who continue to suffer the indignity and misfortune of not being paid in full for the work that they perform. The event, coordinated by the Washington, DC Jobs With Justice Organization, featured presentations from both workers and advocates from leading advocacy organizations. The presentations provided information about both the national issue of wage theft and the particular impact of this practice in the local Washington, D.C. community.

Jen Kern, the Minimum Wage Campaign Coordinator of the national Employment Law Project, presented the summary conclusions of a major national survey of 4,000 mostly lower-paid workers in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Some 25% of these workers reported some form of wage violations in the week previous to the 2009 study: some were forced to work "off the clock", others, mainly service workers, did not receive their full "tip" compensation, and others were employed at one hourly rate but were actually paid less. The cumulative effect of these unpaid wages amounted to an average annual loss of some $2,600 for workers who earn, on average, some $17,000 a year.

Many of these aggrieved workers were intimidated by their bosses and threatened with being fired or turned in to immigration officials if they were Spanish-speaking of identified as being possibly undocumented.

Meghana Reddy, who coordinates a project for restaurant workers in the District of Columbia, informed the Workers' Rights Board that wage theft is pervasive in the national restaurant industry, which is the largest private employer in the nation. Indeed, many "tipped" workers in D.C. are forced to work for $2.77 an hour-substantially lower than the prevailing minimum wage.

Some 90% of these workers also have no health coverage, vacation benefits, or pension plans.

Testimony from local workers indicated that wage theft is a major problem in the District of Columbia as well. Two workers formerly employed by a now-defunct Washington security company testified that they have not been paid since November, 2009. Some of these workers have lost their homes because their employer collected money from a D.C. government contract but withheld payments to the security guards employed by the firm.

Other workers from Central America have been contracted to do construction work at a wage rate significantly less than prevailing pay for equivalent work done by union members.

As a a newly designated member of the Washington, D.C. Workers' Rights Board, I commented that wage theft is a major civil and human rights issue that impacts the security of working people and their families. He noted that "Muslims, Christians, and Jews all have scriptural commandments that honor the integrity of work and call for fairness and justice to working people. We must be obligated to defend the right of workers to receive what they earn, while we pressure both private employers and the U.S. Department of Labor to abide by labor laws and wage agreements. The theft of wages from working people, in any form that it takes, is an abomination in the eyes of God and a profound injustice."

Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey

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