Labor advocates are once again hoping to push a series of bills through the Oregon House that will make it harder for employers to stiff their employees out of their hard-earned dough.
The bills hope to tackle the problem of “wage theft,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: an employer not paying an employee for time spent working. This can happen in any industry and can take many forms, from minimum wage violations to not getting paid for overtime. There are also more outright grotesqueries, like folks just not getting paid at all, or being forced to “work off the clock.” And the problem might be bigger than many imagine.
A seminal 2009 study by the National Employment Law Project, for instance, looked at 4,387 low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The study found that two-thirds of these workers had suffered some form of wage theft. The average loss per worker was estimated at $2,634 per year.
To bring that home a little more, since 2008, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) returned $20 million dollars to workers. But, as they say, you can’t win if you don’t play. In other words, this number only represents people who actually decided to pursue their lost wages. That means the real dollar amount lost by Oregon employees is probably higher.
So, to help alleviate these abuses, Northwest Workers' Justice Project (NWJP), a nonprofit legal aid center, has introduced a series of bills aimed at wage theft.
The four bills currently being pushed by the NWJP break down something like this:
HB 2977, Construction Labor Contractor Bill: This bill would require “labor brokers” that employ construction laborers to be licensed by BOLI. This rule would apply to both established companies and, for lack of a better description, those guys with trucks who pick up day laborers and take them to construction sites. It would also require these employers post bonds (basically a legally enforceable IOU) with BOLI so, if their workers get uppity and decide they want to fight for their stolen wages, those workers can get still get paid something.
HB 2976, Day Labor/Contingent Labor Bill: This bill is a little like the last one, but it’s a little more general. It requires all companies hiring day laborers to register with the state and post bonds. (A proposed amendment could exclude companies that are wage-theft free from these rules.)
HB 3142 Definitions Bill: This bill makes the legal categories of “employee” and “employer” clearer. Believe it or not, there’s currently a lot of legal wiggle room here. The bill also adds language that makes it easier for workers that live in the legal grey area between “independent contractor” and “employee” to pursue wage claims. This could have far-reaching implications for the construction industry in particular, which is a nightmare of contractors, subcontractors, and labor brokers. So for instance if you’re hired to install drywall, and if your employment status is iffy, if the person who hired you stiffs you, you’ll be presumed to be an “employee” under the law if you decide to pursue a wage claim.
SB 573 Wage Lien Bill: Allows employees to place liens on their employers’ properties if their wages are stolen.
All four bills are currently in committee.
The last time the NWJP pursued similar wage theft laws was during the 2011 legislative session. Those bills faced some serious business opposition and didn’t get anywhere. But NWJP Executive Director Michael Dale told me he’s optimistic about this legislative session.
“I think our changes are better because people know more about wage theft, and what a serious problem it is.” says Dale. “I think our chances are better, but I don’t underestimate that there could be opposition, there’s a lot of money being made when people don’t get paid.”