According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, almost $1 billion was recovered in 2012 by legal or regulatory action from employers who paid their employees less than minimum wage. And, if a 2009 study that concentrated on three cities were to be extrapolated nationally, the amount that low-wage workers lose to wage theft may be in the vicinity of $50 billion per year.
"Wage theft" is a term used generally to describe conditions in which an employer does not comply with wage and hours laws by not paying employees overtime that was earned, paying less than the minimum wage, making workers "work off the clock" or not allowing required breaks. While stories of wage theft at large corporations get headlines, most of these problems occur at medium and small businesses. And, it appears that workers who earn the lowest wages are the most susceptible.
Enforcement meant to curb these illegal practices is difficult, for a few reasons. First, government regulatory agencies tend to be underfunded and understaffed. Second, workers may be reluctant to come forward, especially those in lower income brackets, for fear of retaliation by their employers. Finally, some workers simply do not know what their rights are or how to protect them.
There are laws that protect workers from exploitation by employers, both in Oklahoma and nationally. One way to enforce rights is to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or another governmental agency. Another way is to file a civil lawsuit against an employer, asking for the wages that should have been paid, and possibly punitive damages. It is important, even for those workers in the lower range of earning capacity, to understand and protect their rights to earn a living wage and be compensated by their employers for their work.
Source: CNBC, "Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions," Martha C. White, Sept. 29, 2014