Workers may be slowly earning higher wages, but their bosses can still get away with stealing from them.
Workers may be slowly earning higher wages, but their bosses can still get away with stealing from them. DAVID MCNEW/GETTY

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Over the weekend, Politico published a report detailing the many ways federal and state governments fail to protect workers whose bosses underpay them. As politicians here in Washington and across the country pat themselves on the back for supporting a higher minimum wage, the story is a must-read:

The issue shows every sign of going to the voters this November. Many Democrats are already stressing the importance of a $15-per-hour “living wage” as a way to energize lower-income voters. Meanwhile, many states have moved to raise their own hourly minimums far above the federal level — with Washington, D.C., requiring $12.50, Washington State demanding $11.50 and California clocking in at $11. Many other states exceed the federal minimum. In addition, federal law continues to require that hourly workers receive time-and-a-half for work beyond 40 hours per week.

But advocates for low-income workers across the country say employers routinely violate these laws, with little fear of getting caught. And even in states with comparatively robust labor departments, enforcement is lax.

The story lays out exactly how government agencies, especially in the South, have sent a clear message that they don't care about minimum wage enforcement. Many states have fewer than 10 investigators looking into wage violations. Six states (all in the South) have no minimum wage investigators at all. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Labor can't enforce minimum wages that are higher than the federal $7.25 minimum wage. And the DOL has fewer wage investigators today than it did 70 years ago, despite the nation having seven times as many workers today, Politico reports. Without significant enforcement or penalties, employers stand to lose little if they stiff their workers. And delayed or drawn-out investigations can discourage workers from coming forward.

Politico surveyed labor law enforcement in 15 states, including Washington, and found that enforcement agencies collect just 41 percent of the money employers owe. Washington's rate is comparatively good, but according to the report, the state failed to recover about $10 million in stolen wages in the last decade.

Self-congratulating Seattle is familiar with this dynamic, too. According to data from December 2017, the Seattle Office of Labor Standards has charged employers a total of about $1.15 million in back pay and penalties for violating labor laws since the office was created in 2015. OLS has collected 77 percent of the amount owed. The office, which enforces not just the minimum wage and wage theft, but also sick time, secure scheduling, and other rules, has forwarded orders totaling about $278,000 in unpaid back pay and fines to the City Attorney's Office for collection. "Many employers subject to unpaid final orders are no longer in business," the office says in its report of 2017 data.

Before the city created OLS, wage theft was illegal but the city didn't prosecute anyone under that law. OLS now investigates workers complaints, but those investigations can take nearly a year.

So, next time you hear a politician promising you an increased minimum wage, ask them a follow up question: What are they going to do to make sure your boss actually pays you that wage?