Column: Senate legislation to end wage theft epidemic

  • Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, during an interview at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in August. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/19/2016 7:18:59 PM

The Massachusetts economy is working very, very well for some people, but not nearly well enough for others. That’s why we have one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country.

Building an economy that works for everyone is one of the top priorities of the Massachusetts Senate. We are fortunate to have thriving industries in Massachusetts, like solar energy, cyber security and pharmaceuticals. We have companies that make headlines around the world for the pioneering work they do. They pay their workers well, and they make a substantial contribution to our economy.

Less well known is a persistent underground economy, with companies that never make headlines and use that to their advantage to exploit some of our most vulnerable workers. Those companies don’t pay their workers good wages, and sometimes they even refuse to pay them for the work they do. That’s wage theft, and it’s against the law.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s recent investigation cited some painful and shocking stories of wage theft taking place very close to home, but the disturbing reality is that wage theft is widespread throughout Massachusetts. In some sectors of our economy, wage theft has reached epidemic levels.

How does wage theft happen? It can take many forms. Sometimes workers are paid below the minimum wage. Sometimes they are not paid for the number of hours they work. Sometimes workers are treated like independent contractors even if they do not meet the legal criteria to be classified that way. They are paid less than they should be, and can be denied health insurance benefits to cover medical expenses if they are injured on the job.

These illegal practices don’t just hurt workers. They hurt businesses and they hurt taxpayers. Wage cheaters put law-abiding companies at a competitive disadvantage when they lose contracts to companies which can charge less for their work by cheating their workers out of their pay. Underpaid workers pay less in taxes. Companies which earn less for the same work pay less in taxes too, leaving Massachusetts taxpayers on the hook to pick up the slack for wage cheaters.

Workers cheated out of their wages are often afraid of speaking up for fear of retaliation, and of losing the work they have. Sometimes workers can go weeks without getting the pay and benefits they have rightfully earned. This is wrong, and the responsibility to fix it lies with us.

With bipartisan support this legislative session, the Massachusetts Senate passed two bills to tackle this injustice head on: the Wage Violations Bill, and the Wage Theft Prevention Bill. The Wage Violations Bill would expand the authority of the Attorney General to intervene in cases of wage theft, and enhance civil penalties against wage cheaters. The Wage Theft Prevention Bill would hold companies liable if they use a subcontractor which withholds wages, and hold companies accountable if they knew or should have known about wage cheating by a subcontractor.

In this time of emerging technologies, where many new companies use independent contractors rather than full-time employees to get their work done, it is more critical than ever that our laws provide basic protections to make sure workers are fully paid for the work they do. The attorney general must have powerful, updated tools to recover stolen wages and to hold violators accountable for breaking the law.

At the same time, older companies in more established industries, which rely on subcontractors, must be vigilant and make sure the subcontractors they use are paying their workers in accordance with the law. Adoption of the Wage Theft Prevention Bill would put companies on notice that they literally cannot afford to turn a blind eye when putting work in the hands of a subcontractor. This would not only protect workers from possible wage cheaters, it makes good business sense too.

And while we are protecting workers by strengthening our laws against wage theft, under the Senate’s bills the attorney general would prepare a notice of workers’ rights under the new law and require employers to put it where everyone will be able to see it.

An honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay. Everyone has the right to guaranteed wages and protections under the law, and it’s up to us to stem the tide of this growing wage theft epidemic. With bipartisan support, the Senate has taken critical strides to make sure every worker in Massachusetts gets paid for the work they do. When that happens, our economy will grow faster in every sector. For the sake of our economy and working families across Massachusetts, it’s time to make this legislation the law, and put a stop to wage cheaters.

Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, is the Senate President. Sal DiDomenico is a Democratic senator from Everett.

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