[COLUMN] Employer theft of employees’ wages: Are they more serious than mob merchandise thefts? 

IF you’ve watched the news lately, you’ve probably seen the shocking videos of  smash-and-grab mobs stealing merchandise from some high-end stores. The news media  have been playing these eye-catching videos along with interviews of corporate retail  executives decrying a supposed loss of law and order highlighted by these high-profile  thefts in retail workplaces.

These organized mob thefts are certainly a problem that should be addressed by  the authorities. But as an employment attorney, I can’t help but feel bothered that, while  these handful of instances of high-profile thefts of luxury goods gets so much airtime,  hardly any attention is paid to the numerous instances of wage theft that victimizes the  working people of this country.

In a recent Los Angeles Times column, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Michael  Hiltzik described having the same observation while watching an interview of former  Home Depot Chief Executive Bob Nardelli, in which Mr. Nardelli warned that the recent  spate of organized retail crime were indicative of an increasingly “lawless society.”

Mr. Hiltzik observed that although Home Depot would seem to care quite a bit  about crime in the workplace when it involved theft of the goods they sold, they would  appear less concerned about theft of wages rightfully earned but denied to Home Depot’s  own employees. In June 2023, Home Depot settled a class-action lawsuit with workers  alleging widespread wage theft, for $72.5 million. Home Depot didn’t admit to the  allegation, but instead claim that settled for that amount of money to make the lawsuit go  away. Hiltzik noted the “discordance in how we define ‘crime’ in the workplace. On the  one hand, sporadic robberies inflated by retail lobbyists and media via eye-catching  reports; on the other, the pervasive shortchanging of hourly workers by their employers.”

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the aggregate instances of wage theft  in the United States amounts to approximately $50 billion a year. There are many ways  employers unlawfully appropriate a portion of employees’ wages. Consider the following:

a.) Paying less than the legal minimum hourly wage;

b.) Refusing to pay overtime by paying fixed salaries to individuals in jobs properly  classified as non-exempt;

c.) Misclassifying workers as independent contractors despite controlling them;

d.) Denying meal and rest breaks, and the premium wages earned each time a break  is denied;

e.) Diverting workers’ tips; compelling workers to cover operating expenses out of  pocket without reimbursements required by law;

f.) Requiring workers to work off-the-clock to prepare for their shifts or complete  their work after their shifts have officially ended.

All of these practices of wage theft are illegal under California law. Employees  whose hard-earned wages have been stolen from them and their families might lament  employers’ pervasive flouting of worker-protection laws. This is clear when approximately  $50 billion a year in wage theft reflects an increasingly “lawless society.”

Criminal prosecution is our legal system’s answer to smash-and-grab mobs.  Meanwhile, to combat employer wage thefts, employees and counsel should be ready to  prosecute civil actions.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential  and at no cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than  25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and  consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal,  consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for  Outstanding Fitlipino Overseas.]

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