By Barb Arland-Fye
An estimated 250,000 Iowa workers, many of them earning minimum wage, have been deprived of more than $900 million a year from employers because of wage theft, according to a new report from Common Good Iowa. The report, based on analysis of federal and state data and records (2017-19), serves as a call to action to ensure that all workers receive just wages and benefits, along with decent working conditions. It is a principle of our Catholic Social Teaching.
Stolen wages break down to $501 million in overtime violations, $241 million in minimum wage violations and $163 million in other violations, Common Ground Iowa reported (https://tinyurl.com/26vrps37), referencing Bureau of Labor Statistics data and Iowa Workforce Development and U.S. Department of Labor enforcement records. The report’s author, Sean Finn, shared the results during a virtual news conference Oct. 13. Common Good Iowa identifies itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on policy alternatives that advance the common good (commongoodiowa.org).
Among the report’s other findings:
• Wage theft cheats the public out of $190 million in lost tax revenue annually.
• For every $1,000 in wages stolen from Iowa workers, understaffed government agencies recover just $2.
• Wage theft is especially common in essential but often low-paying positions in food service, hospitality, nursing, childcare and construction.
• Employers often target workers who are vulnerable due to disabilities, language barriers or immigration status.
“Violations are five times as common among low-income Iowans,” the report notes, and they suffer most from the theft — an average of $89 per week ($4,600 annually). That leaves them short for rent, utilities and groceries. “Among those who experience minimum wage violations, the average violation accounts for a third of what the worker is owed under state and federal minimum wage laws.”
Many wage theft victims do not know where to turn for help, have been discouraged by response from the limited state staff available to assist them or have avoided reporting for fear of losing their jobs. Some may not complain for fear of being deported.
Mazahir Salih, executive director of Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) of Eastern Iowa is seeing an increase in the number of workers reporting wage theft to the nonprofit based in Iowa City. “On average throughout the past six years, 11 workers come to CWJ each year regarding wage theft. However, we are seeing this increase as in 2021 we saw 17 workers, and in 2022 we have seen 23 workers so far,” she said. The majority of workers are in the construction or service/restaurant industry. “In past years, we had seen several cases within the hospitality industry as well.” CWJ recovered nearly $19,000 in back wages in 2020 alone, the Common Good Iowa report noted.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Iowa Wage Payment Collection Act established workers’ rights to be paid for their work. However, the Common Good Iowa report said Iowa set weak penalties and put up barriers to enforcement, in part because it has just two wage-claim investigators for Iowa’s labor force of 1.6 million workers.
Conversely, the Iowa Legislature passed workforce bills this year that benefit employers and seek to attract new employees to Iowa’s workforce but offered no legislation to ensure Iowa’s hardworking, vulnerable workers receive the wages they earn.
The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) reminds us, “The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies” (iowacatholicconference.org). Legislation to protect the economic and physical security of workers is among the concerns of the ICC, the public policy voice of Iowa’s bishops.
Catholic Social Teaching reinforces the dignity of the worker in “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life” of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It states, “All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.”
Our call to action, based on the Common Good Iowa report’s recommendations and in keeping with Catholic Social Teaching, begins with contacting our Iowa state legislators (www.legis.iowa.gov) and telling them:
• Iowa Workforce Development must improve its administrative policies and procedures. Among them, remove administrative barriers to filing claims, such as the $6,500 claim cap, so workers can quickly and easily report illegal activities. Low-income workers often cannot afford to pay up-front fees to attorneys to pursue violations.
• Hire more wage claim investigators to respond to claims and conduct audits targeted at repeat offenders and industries with high rates of violations.
• Dedicate resources to educating workers about their wage payment rights.
• Collect data on the actual incidence of wage theft and compel federal agencies to do the same.
• Volunteer as an ally at the Center for Worker Justice in Eastern Iowa (cwjiowa.org). Visit the website (cwjiowa.org), send an email (email@example.com) or call (319) 594-7593.
Economic justice is the right of all workers. Our Church teaches that we are responsible to ensure economic justice in the world in which we live.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor