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This May Day, commit to fight for workers whose wages are stolen

Commentary

Managers regularly made us work off the clock, telling us to . . . clock out but keep working if we were getting close to overtime hours. Managers even adjusted hours after the fact to keep labor costs down. Sometimes they would even schedule us to work whole shifts just for tips, not letting us clock in at all.

—Mike Swisher, former employee of Applebee’s in Bend, testifying before the Oregon legislature in favor of the Oregon Corporate Accountability Act

This May Day arrives as many workers in Oregon struggle just to get paid for their labor.

Wage theft, a catchall term for the many ways employers steal from their workers, is widespread. By one estimate, it costs low-wage workers nationwide more than $50 billion annually. So pervasive is wage theft that it significantly increases the poverty rate.

That theft runs rampant in the workplace is not surprising, given that the two main protectors of workers — unions and state investigators — are in diminished circumstances. Reinvigorating both is essential for ensuring that workers get paid for their work.

Unions protect workers. It is due to the efforts of organized labor that we possess worker protections such as child labor laws, workplace safety regulations, overtime compensation, and the 40-hour work week. In a unionized workplace, employers are less likely to get away with stealing wages, as workers can turn to their union to fight it.

But the share of workers belonging to unions has been in long-term decline. The reasons are complex. An unfavorable federal legislative framework, the decline of manufacturing, and union-busting tactics by employers are certainly part of the story. In Oregon, the unionization rate has fallen from 33 percent in 1979 to 15 percent in 2018. The losses have been concentrated in the private sector, the sector where wage theft takes its toll.

As unions have retrenched, so too has the state agency in charge of protecting workers. From the early 1990s to now, staff at the Wage and Hour Division at the Oregon Bureau of Labor (BOLI) shrunk by half, when measured as a share of Oregon’s workforce. This decline in the bureau’s capacity follows massive cuts to the agency in the decade prior.

Without a union to watch their back inside the workplace, and with state investigators stretched thin, it’s no wonder that so many workers are vulnerable to wage theft. These workers have families to feed and bills to pay. Fear of retaliation keeps many workers from reporting wage theft. As Mike Swisher, the former Applebee’s employee explained, he and his colleagues worked off the clock just for tips “because they needed the money.”

Certainly, a union resurgence is essential to improve the well-being of workers, especially low-income workers. And there are reasons for hope, from the waves of teacher strikes last year to the growth of the Burgerville Workers’ Union, the first union of fast-food workers.

In the meantime, the Oregon legislature can take decisive steps to protect workers. The first is simply to give BOLI more resources, enabling it to investigate more claims of wage theft.

The second is to enact Senate Bill 750, also known as the Oregon Corporate Accountability Act. This bill would allow a citizen to bring a lawsuit for penalties for wage violations on behalf of the state. Such an arrangement, which already exists in California, could dramatically expand Oregon’s capacity to protect workers. Furthermore, right now, many workers find themselves bound by forced arbitration clauses in employment agreements — contractual language they never negotiated and perhaps never even saw.

Such forced arbitration clauses stack the deck against a worker and prevent workers from bringing collective legal action against unscrupulous employers. In effect, SB 750 removes that impediment and empowers workers to bring a suit in the name of the state, if the state lacks the resources to litigate the workplace violations itself. This proposed law would also bring needed dollars to Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, as a part of any penalties assessed would flow to the state.

On May 1, 1886, workers in Chicago struck to demand an eight-hour work day, the event that gave rise to May Day. It took time, but workers ultimately prevailed. This May Day, let’s recommit to fight and win against wage theft.