As a child growing up in Massapequa—the Long Island suburb where Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin were raised—I always viewed my community as patriotic and law-abiding. Ron Kovic, the crippled Vietnam veteran who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, came from Massapequa. So did Peggy Noonan, the Reagan speechwriter. The most popular restaurant in town was a burger joint called “All-American.”

So I was rather startled to learn last November about some shameful, un-American goings-on in the community next door. According to the New York State Labor Department, a housecleaning company in neighboring Amityville often had its 170 employees work sixty hours a week, but they sometimes took home less than $100.

The company took all sorts of outlandish and outrageous deductions from the workers’ paychecks. If a customer was not satisfied with the service provided, deductions were taken from the cleaner’s pay. When the company did a promotional campaign offering discounted services, the discounts were often taken out of workers’ paychecks. If an employee needed assistance on a difficult project, like cleaning carpets or air ducts, the pay for the additional worker was deducted from the paycheck of the employee who requested assistance. If a customer gave an employee a check that bounced, the company deducted money from the employee’s paycheck to make up for the lost revenues. In these ways, the New York State Labor Department found, the company cheated its employees of $238,581.

In her stirring new book, Wage Theft in America, Kim Bobo shines a bright light on this often invisible, alarming phenomenon: the way thousands of employers across the nation systematically cheat their workers out of wages. Bobo is spot on when she writes: “Wage theft is not somewhere else. It is here, in my community and yours.” Bobo, the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a labor-clergy group that battles for embattled low-wage workers, catalogs the myriad ways employers steal wages. They make employees work off the clock, make them work free their first week on the job, erase hours from their time cards, never pay them for their last week on the job, and make illegal deductions for uniforms and for driving employees from one work site to another.

“Although sometimes people have actually experienced wage theft themselves, they thought it was an isolated incident-one bad employer, one bad apple,” Bobo writes. “Unfortunately, the problem is at epidemic proportions.” She explains that wage theft happens not just to low-wage workers, but to many middle-class workers who, for instance, may be wrongly classified as supervisors so they do not qualify for time-and-a-half when they work more than forty hours a week.

As one would expect from the head of Interfaith Worker Justice, Bobo repeatedly reminds us how wage theft flagrantly violates religious teachings. The first four words in her book come from the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not steal.” And it shouldn’t be surprising if her book sometimes resembles a jeremiad, because she seems inspired by Jeremiah’s words: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” Bobo also turns to the Qur’an for support: “Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due.” She bemoans the disappearance of the Catholic labor schools and Jewish labor lyceums of decades past, which taught tens of thousands of workers how to stand up and fight abuses.

Bobo makes clear that wage theft is committed not just by small, fly-by-night firms, but also by managers at some of the nation’s most prominent corporations, including Wal-Mart. Wage theft hurts not only workers, she explains, but also honest companies put at a disadvantage by competitors that undercut and underbid them by violating wage laws.

While she complains that wage theft has reached “epidemic proportions,” I wish Bobo had tried harder to quantify, either in dollars or in the number of cheated workers, exactly how extensive wage theft is. Still, she does point to federal studies showing that only 40 percent of nursing homes complied fully with wage laws and only 22 to 70 percent of restaurants did (depending on the city), and that none of the nation’s poultry factories did.

In her view wage theft grows directly out of several corporate strategies, among them expansion at all costs and maximizing short-term profits to please investors. One especially big problem, Bobo writes, is inadequate enforcement and inadequate penalties. Crooked employers know they are unlikely to be caught, and that, if they are, the penalties will be minor. “If a government agency handles a wage-theft case,” Bobo writes, “the most likely ‘penalty’ is that the employer will have to pay the wages the employer should have paid in the first place. That is not much of a penalty.”

In the 1940s, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division had 1,769 employees in the field, one for every 9,000 workers and every 203 workplaces. But now, Bobo notes, the division has only 750 investigators, one for every 170,000 workers and 9,000 workplaces. Making matters worse, workers who complain of illegalities often encounter unwelcoming government workers and a bureaucratic maze. A worker facing wage theft, safety violations, and sexual discrimination has to deal with three different federal agencies and file three different complaints.

Bobo presents a long menu of recommendations to beef up enforcement. Not surprisingly, she calls for greatly expanding the number of wage investigators, increasing penalties, and targeting industries known for violations. She calls for streamlining procedures to make it easier to file complaints, and she says the government needs to make it clear that undocumented workers will not jeopardize themselves by filing wage complaints. She advises government agencies to work closely with immigrant worker centers and labor unions so those groups can serve as eyes and ears to help uncover violations.

“My dream for the book is that it builds awareness of the crisis of wage theft and stimulates the needed public will to stop it,” Bobo writes. Many low-wage workers will no doubt pray that the new Labor secretary and Wage and Hour director will take her advice to heart.

Related: Robert DeFina reviews Steven Greenhouse's The Big Squeeze

Steven Greenhouse, a former labor reporter for the New York Times, is author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (Knopf).

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Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: View Contents
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