One worker after another, they described how employers failed to pay them for work they performed. They included a truck driver, a home health care worker, a retail cleaner and a school worker. All spoke at a roundtable Wednesday hosted by the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service and moderated by Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith.
The event highlighted the problem of wage theft in Minnesota and pointed to legislation to improve enforcement when wage theft occurs.
“It is so completely wrong,” Smith said. “Wage theft is stealing.”
Lucila Dominguez shared how she worked for several retail cleaning contractors and “in every job… I had a wage theft.” Finally, she said, “I decided to stop changing jobs and change the job.” She became involved with CTUL – Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha/Center for Workers United in Struggle – a Minneapolis-based worker center that has recovered thousands of dollars in wages owed to workers.
“We have a lot of workers who are undocumented who fear reporting wage theft,” said Gladys Gutierrez-Anaya, an organizer for the St. Cloud-based Greater Minnesota Worker Center. At a poultry plant near St. Cloud, she reported, workers aren’t paid for the time it takes them to put on safety gear before and after their shifts — that is just a few minutes a day, but the time adds up, and the unpaid work time is wage theft.
“Because of fear of being deported, or losing their job, these people are being silenced,” Gutierrez-Anaya said.
Wage theft affects all workers in all sectors of employment.
Anna Gimberline described how school custodial staff weren’t paid during their lunch break, but still were expected to respond at any moment to requests to take care of a problem. The workers realized that meant they were working during their lunch break but not being paid. Through their union, the workers are now paid for their time and “we’re now fighting for back pay to get us the money we are owed.”
Latonya Hughes, a personal care attendant, described how she and co-workers who worked for Crystal Care were left with unpaid wages when the company filed for bankruptcy. “I worked for six weeks with no pay,” she said, because of her dedication to her patients and false promises from the employer that a paycheck was coming. “Wage theft is real,” she said.
“It’s important we all work together to stop this from happening,” said Steve Saterlee, a member of Teamsters Local 120. He shared the story of the abrupt closing of Lakeville Motor Express in November 2016, which left 95 workers out of work — and without the pay they were owed for their last two weeks of work.
“I’m still very angry about what happened,” he said. “I’m asking our legislators, please, do what’s right for the people of our state.”
In some industries, such as construction, employers intentionally and routinely steal wages from workers, said Burt Johnson, attorney for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. It is “a business model” that the union refers to as “payroll fraud.”
Lt. Gov. Smith said her understanding of wage theft has grown in recent years.
“I have to admit I thought it was something that was extremely rare and almost done by accident,” she said. “I have learned a lot since then,” noting “There are so many ways employers can steal from their employees, whether it’s five minutes at a time or two weeks at a time.”
Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, addressed the group about legislation he is sponsoring to address wage theft.
“Right now, our enforcement at the state is woefully underfunded and understaffed,” he said. “Forty thousand people get money stolen from them every year.”
The legislation (HF1391, SF1329) would:
- Define wage theft as a crime;
- Invest $1 million in the state Department of Labor and Industry to investigate wage theft and enforce state law;
- Provide power of subpoena to the department to enable it to gather employer records;
- Require employers to provide workers with an official notice of the start date of employment, rate of pay, legal name of employer, and employer’s address and phone number;
- Increase fines and penalties for wage theft.
- Create criminal penalties for willful and repeated violation of wage theft laws.
“We need more help,” said Ken Peterson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, also a member of the panel. “We need assurance that people not lose their jobs because they report being cheated.”
Mahoney encouraged people to contact their state legislators to urge support for the wage theft legislation.
As the result of a Workday Minnesota series on wage theft published last year, a coalition has formed to combat the problem. For more information on the coalition, email Howard Kling at the Labor Education Service.