Oregon devotes far fewer resources protecting workers cheated out of their wages by employers than it did a generation ago, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy. The public policy institute’s analysis arrives as the Oregon legislature considers measures to clamp down on the illegal practice known as “wage theft.”
“Unscrupulous employers are less likely to get caught stealing wages when there are fewer investigators watching out for workers,” said Janet Bauer, policy analyst with the Center.
Staff at the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) investigating wage claims has shrunk by half over the past two-and-a-half decades, when measured on a per-worker basis, Bauer said. In the 1993-95 budget period, BOLI had about 3.5 full-time staff members in its Wage and Hour Division for every 100,000 workers in the state, Bauer explained. That ratio has dropped to 1.7 in the present budget period.
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Along with the decline in personnel, BOLI has shut down field offices. In the past 25 years, the bureau has closed wage enforcement offices in Pendleton, Bend and Medford, Bauer said. Today, only offices in Portland, Salem and Eugene remain open.
“The bureau does great work investigating workers’ reports of wage theft,” Bauer said. “Unfortunately, we provide far fewer resources to BOLI than are needed to rid our state of this illegal practice.”
Wage theft has become a widespread problem, particularly for low wage workers, Bauer explained. Wage theft occurs when employers pay workers less than the minimum wage, don’t pay time-and-a-half for overtime hours, cheat on the number of hours worked, steal tips or don’t pay workers at all.
BOLI data analyzed by the Center shows that wage theft has caused workers to lose tens of millions of dollars in recent years. “These figures are only the tip of the iceberg, because workers often fear reprisal from their boss if they report violations, or simply don’t know where to turn for help,” Bauer said.
Restoring the bureau’s Wage and Hour Division to staffing levels of the early 1990s relative to the number of workers in the state would require about $9 million in additional funds, according to Bauer, essentially doubling the division’s budget.
To better protect workers from wage theft, Bauer urged Oregon lawmakers to both increase funding for BOLI’s Wage and Hour Division and to remove obstacles that make it difficult for workers to pursue their own actions against employers for unpaid wages.
The Oregon Center for Public Policy (www.www.ocpp.org) is a non-partisan, non-profit institute that does in-depth research and analysis on budget, tax and economic issues. The Center’s goal is to improve decision making and generate more opportunities for all Oregonians.