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Friday, March 15, 2013

Working for nothing

I’ve been the victim of wage theft at least twice in my career.

In the winter of 2001, I was flat broke hitch-hiking through Big Sur when I picked up some day labor with a local carpenter. After a long hard day of lugging plywood up a ladder and swinging a hammer on a rooftop high above the Pacific Ocean, the contractor paid me some – but not all – of what we had agreed to. The balance he was supposed to give me the next day, and I never saw him again.

Then, in 2005, I was working for a newspaper in Oregon when my editor asked us reporters to “manage” our weekly schedules in a way that equals about 40 hours a week, but to fill out our time cards as if we worked 8-hour days (even though as a practical matter we all worked more than 8 hours a day, everyday!).

If you’re reading this post, chances are you have never even considered not getting paid for your work. But chances are your boss has asked you to work for free, or to violate labor laws. Both are wage theft.

And both varieties go extremely unreported. The kind my editor did never gets reported because we’ve all been trained to believe that the way to advance a career is to let powerful people take advantage of you. The other kind – where, for example, the guy who cuts your grass will simply not get paid because he is an undocumented worker and his boss knows he has little recourse – that rarely gets reported either.

But according to Fuerza Laboral, a grassroots group that organizes and advocates for exploited workers, almost $3 million in stolen wages has been reported in Rhode Island since 2002.

Wage theft is a rampant problem amongst working people in Rhode Island. According to the DLT, $2,967,230 was stolen from working people in RI between 2002 and 2011. Immigrant and homeless workers are particularly at risk for having their labor exploited in this way.

Since many cases go unreported, the amount of wages stolen reported by the Rhode Island DLT is much lower than what is actually experienced by the working people of Rhode Island.

Just between the 32 participants in a study done by Fuerza Laboral, they reported at least $170,500 owed to them in unpaid wages, accumulated over the past 5 years.

Note: The people who tend to get their wages stolen in this way don’t tend to vote, so politicians don’t tend to care about this issue.

Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.