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Wage theft hurts African Americans

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 5/5/2010, 5 p.m.

Over the course of a year, employers will "steal" more than $2,000 from their minimum wage workers in Los Angeles, according to a study recently completed by the UCLA Institute of Research on Labor and Employment.
The report, "Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles: The Failure of Employment and Labor Law for Low-Wage Workers," by Ruth Milkman, Ana Luz Gonzales and Victor Narro, found that figure breaks down to about $40 per week.
"Forty dollars is a bag of groceries; it's enough to keep the lights on or pay a phone bill," said Lola Smallwood-Cueves. "This is why it is very important to ensure that workers' rights are respected, and they are protected in every way we can."
Smallwood-Cueves is coordinator of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and a project director at the UCLA Labor Center. She noted that African Americans are particularly vulnerable to this problem because many of them work in low-wage or under-regulated industries such as janitorial/building service, security officers, warehouse workers, home health/childcare, and restaurants.
Smallwood-Cueves defines wage theft as the "amount of money that workers lose, when employers don't follow labor laws and fail to pay them."
Among the ways this happens, said the center coordinator, is that employers may ask employees to work off the clock before or after their shift. The report found that 52.8 percent of African Americans who worked more than 40 hours in the week previous to the 2008 survey, had worked "off the clock" and had not been compensated for that work. Also, 58.1 percent were not paid the legally required rate of time-and-a-half for overtime.
Additionally, the report found that 70 percent of African Americans sampled had experienced a violation of meal-break laws, during the week prior to the survey.
Other findings included that 19.9 percent of African Americans had been paid less than the minimum wage of $8 per hour, during that same time period.
Smallwood-Cueves said another way workers are robbed of wages, is because of violation of break laws. The Black Worker Center coordinator said California law requires employers to provide workers one 10-minute rest break for each four-hour shift or two 10-minute rest breaks in a standard eight-hour shift.
Some key reasons why most workers in these positions are cheated in this manner, added the director, is because they don't know the laws or are intimidated and afraid of losing their jobs.
"That is why it has become common practice. The employee is cooperating and the employer is making that request," explained Smallwood-Cueves, noting that one key way to end the practice is for employees to know their rights and let employers know that they are aware of such things as break-time rules.
The Black Worker Center plans to hold a series of clinics in the winter to inform individuals of their rights. Meanwhile, Smallwood-Cueves said, people can call the L.A. Black Workers Center for help at (213) 480-4155, Ext 212.
The National Labor Relations Board also has helpful information on its web site.
Finally, last fall Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon introduced a wage-theft motion, which is currently being drafted into an ordinance by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. It is expected to go before council committees and the full body for a vote next month.
* 63.6 percent of workers did not receive documentation of earnings and deductions (a legal requirement)

* 19.2 percent of workers had tips appropriated by employers or managers

* 45.3 percent of those surveyed where subjected to illegal deductions such as damages, loss, work-related tools, materials, transportation, or uniforms

* 10 hours is the average overtime employees worked in a week and were not paid the legal rate of
time-and-a-half (overtime is triggered after 40 hours of work)

Source: "Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles: The Failure of Employment and Labor Law for Low-Wage Workers," 2010, UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.