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Honest Work, Unfair Pay: Wage Theft and Disputing Among Low-Wage Workers in the District of Columbia

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

Wage theft occurs whenever a worker is denied the wages or benefits to which they are legally entitled. Violations of low-wage workers’ basic workplace rights is common, and these violations collectively cost working people and various levels of government tens of billions of dollars per year. Due to growing awareness over this problem, some states and cities have recently passed new laws designed to better remedy and deter wage theft. The District of Columbia is one such city, and has among the strongest anti-wage theft laws in the country. Through approximately sixty semi-structured, qualitative interviews with low-wage workers, employment lawyers, workers’ rights activists, and a small number of employers, this research explores the personal and social consequences of wage theft among low-wage workers in Washington, DC.

Low-wage workers report significant harm as a result of wage theft, which extends far beyond the immediate economic consequence of being underpaid. Wage theft often causes a variety of cascading economic harms, as low-wage workers struggle to pay for the basics of life, including rent, food, and utilities. Many victims of wage theft also report feeling angry, depressed, powerless, and frustrated, and some report stress-related health problems.

Despite the powerful effect that wage theft has on its victims, low-wage workers are highly unlikely to attempt legal action, either by filing a lawsuit or seeking help from the government. Many are afraid of retaliation by their employers, and cannot afford to leave their jobs. Many also lack knowledge of their substantive and procedural rights, and either do not know that their workplace rights have been violated, or do not know where to go for help. Workers also report that they lack faith in the government’s ability and willingness to help them.

These findings have significant implications for labor standards enforcement. While the District’s legal reforms have helped to address the problem of wage theft in some limited ways, the city primarily utilizes a complaint-based system for finding and remedying wage theft. However, given that wage theft is common and that those who experience it are extremely unlikely to notify the government, this passive approach is a deeply inadequate response to the problem. To effectively find, remediate, and deter wage theft, enforcement agencies must adopt more proactive strategies. At a minimum, this must include improving working relationships with community organizations, expanding the frequency and scope of agency-directed workplace investigations, and streamlining government processes.

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