Low-Wage Workers Need More Than Good Laws

By Tanya L. Goldman 

Introducing “The Labor Standards Enforcement Toolbox,” a series of briefs on state and local enforcement 

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, which is poverty-level wages at 40 hours a week for a worker with a family. Economic inequality is becoming more entrenched because jobs don’t pay enough or provide enough hours to make ends meet. Workers also struggle because the federal government does not require the paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and fair and predictable schedules that people need to succeed. Discrimination and other systemic barriers make it hard for many people to get good jobs. 

In the absence of federal action, states and localities are stepping up and passing legislation to protect workers. Successful campaigns include Fight for $15, One Fair Wage, Ban the Box, Fair Schedules, Paid Sick and Safe Time, and Paid Family and Medical Leave. But a law that isn’t properly implemented and robustly enforced is merely symbolic. That’s why CLASP and the Center for Innovation and Worker Organization (CIWO) have partnered on a series of webinars and briefs, “The Labor Standards Enforcement Toolbox,” to support enforcement agencies and advocates.

Workers need more than good legislation. They need to know about these laws and understand how to assert their rights without fear of retaliation. Workers need to know the government is ready and able to defend them and obtain critical remedies when their rights are violated. A lost paycheck often means that the rent isn’t paid and groceries aren’t purchased. While underpayment is a problem for any worker, wage theft affects at least 17 percent of low-wage workers and poses unique problems for undocumented immigrant workers who live in fear of threats and retaliation when they seek restitution.

Employers regularly violate existing labor and employment laws, even those dating back 80 years to passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In fact, President Trump’s first nominee for Secretary of Labor—who was never confirmed—ran a major company that repeatedly violated the very wage and hour and safety protections he would have been charged with enforcing. 

A 2009 study of low-wage workers found that “employment and labor laws are regularly and systematically violated.” More than a quarter of the workers were paid less than minimum wage in the previous workweek. For those workers who worked over 40 hours, more than three quarters didn’t receive legally required overtime pay. 

According to a more recent study of 10 states, 2.4 million workers every year are paid less than the minimum wage—collectively representing more than $8 billion in underpaid wages annually. If these findings are nationally representative, total wages stolen from workers due to minimum wage violations alone could exceed $15 billion each year. These underlying violations, along with retaliation for reporting them, reverberate beyond workplaces to the neighborhoods and communities that see and feel the effects.

As states and localities pass innovative and critical new legislation, we must stay the course and ensure working people benefit. Our Labor Standards Enforcement Toolbox highlights promising practices and innovative ways for governments to implement and enforce labor standards. The first of our four briefs addresses the triage and processing of complaints and conducting investigations. The second brief addresses the nuts and bolts of enforcement and offers strategies for ensuring the biggest impact given an agency’s resources. Our third brief includes strategies for collecting and getting money in workers’ pockets once the agency determines they’re owed wages. Brief four describes strategic enforcement and offers techniques for prioritizing and directing outreach and enforcement efforts to where the problems are largest, workers are least likely to exercise their legal rights, and agencies can impact industry-wide compliance. 

The briefs and our corresponding webinars provide examples of how to successfully leverage partnerships between agencies, community-based organizations, and the private bar. We also offer insights for advocates seeking to improve the legislative tools available to enforce laws. As states and localities take the lead on workplace justice, we want to ensure these laws are truly available to and can help those workers most in need.