Wage theft is widespread

The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced it had reached a $5 million settlement in a wage theft case — one of the largest settlements of its kind in history. The case involves 476 workers who worked in the poultry industry in California.

After an investigation, the Labor Department found the owners of the poultry processing and distributing companies had violated child labor laws and failed to pay its workers millions of dollars they were owed. The companies reportedly employed children — some of them only 14 years old — in dangerous labor, in violation of numerous regulations.

The settlement includes more than $150,000 in fines related to child labor violations and more than $200,000 in other penalties, as well as $4.8 million for the wage violations.

$8 billion in unpaid wages

The Labor Department’s settlement is good news for the workers involved, and the dollar figures are certainly impressive, but many workers are not so lucky.

Some researchers estimate that employers fail to pay $8 billion in wages owed to American workers every year.

In some cases, wage theft consists of simply failing to pay workers, or paying less than minimum wage. In other cases, it’s harder to detect. Wage theft also comes in forms such as:

  • Failure to pay overtime
  • Misclassification of workers as exempt from overtime and other requirements
  • Failure to reimburse employees for business expenses
  • Withholding tip money
  • Failure to grant breaks at required intervals

Workers in low-wage occupations may be the most vulnerable to wage theft, but the practice is common in a wide variety of industries, and for both entry-level and highly skilled workers. In a study of data from 2021, researchers looked at 17,000 claims of wage theft from California workers and found that nearly 13% came from the health care and social work industry, more than 10% from the hospitality industry and 9.5% from the legal and scientific industries.

Justice for wage theft

Workers who believe they have been subjected to wage theft may contact the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to report their concerns. It can also be wise to seek out advice from professionals who have experience in wage theft litigation.