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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Workers in Mass. lose $1 billion per year to wage theft, legislative committee learns

With up to $1 billion in wages taken from Bay State employees every year, lawmakers are attempting — again — to change the law to help their constituents get the money they’ve worked so hard to earn from unscrupulous employers.

A pair of bills filed by Rep. Daniel Donahue and Sen. Sal DiDomenico heard by the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development on Tuesday would empower the Attorney General to take action on behalf of employees seeking lost wages and allow her office to investigate complaints of wage theft and take civil action against employers who steal from their staff.

According to AG Andrea Campbell, it’s a problem her office hears about frequently.

“Our Fair Labor team continues to receive a high volume of reports of violations. In Fiscal Year 2023, we received 13,000 calls and fielded over 6,600 complaints,” she told the committee.

Under consideration are H1868 and S1158, or An Act to prevent wage theft, promote employer accountability, and enhance public enforcement.

The bills, if made law, could provide relief to victims of a practice that Stephen Tolman, President of the Massachusetts AFL–CIO, said annually amounts to nearly $1 billion in wages being “deliberately stolen out of workers’ pockets.”

When a worker isn’t paid what they are owed, Tolman testified, it forces them and their families to make “impossible decisions, like paying the bills or buying groceries. That’s real, and it’s been going on for far too long.”

According to Campbell’s testimony, the current law isn’t really helping workers when their employers stiff them on pay.

“We ordered over $4.2M to be put back into the pockets of 10,400 workers. We mandated that violators pay $9.2 M in penalties to the General Fund,” she testified.

If you do the math between what the AG says her office was able to help recoup, compared to what Tolman said was taken last year, that means the current law enabled workers to collectively recover less than half-a-percent of their lost wages.

Changing the law would help Campbell’s office go after violators and see workers made whole, she said.

“This bill would improve and enhance the tools used by my office to address wage theft,” the AG testified.

A similar law was proposed in both previous sessions of the Legislature and in 2015.

In November of 2020, that year’s bill was reported favorably by the Labor and Workforce Development committee before being sent to Ways and Means, where it died.

The following attempt met a similar fate.

Lawmakers hearing testimony on Tuesday did not tip their hands as to whether they were going to send the bill to their colleagues again.

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