May 23, 2024 - Business

Hourly workers in California report high levels of wage theft, new survey finds

Illustration of a one hundred dollar bill being yanked out of the spotlight by a stage hook.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

41% of hourly workers in California said they experienced at least one serious labor law violation, including wage theft, over the past year, finds a new survey, conducted by researchers at Harvard and UC San Francisco.

Why it matters: These violations, like failing to pay overtime, undermine the economic security of low-income workers.

The big picture: California has some of the best worker protection laws in the country, going beyond federal requirements — the state requires overtime pay for hourly workers who work longer than eight hours a day.

  • But those protections are just on paper, and the data on whether employers comply is flawed.

How they did it: The researchers surveyed about 1,000 workers at 98 large service industry employers (think fast food, grocery stores and retail).

  • The serious violations included not getting paid overtime, being made to work off the clock, or getting paid less than the minimum wage — effectively wage theft.
  • "These are crimes. People have experienced theft of their time, of their wages," says Daniel Schneider, the survey's coauthor and a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Zoom in: Typically, information on violations comes from worker reports to state and federal agencies.

  • The new survey finds that just 22% of workers report labor violations — and when they do lodge complaints, it's typically to their employer.
  • Part of the problem is that workers fear retaliation for speaking up.

Zoom out: It's common to survey the victims of other types of crimes. Companies in the service sector often put out reports on shoplifting and shrinkage.

  • But when it comes to wage theft and labor violations, as Schneider points out, "we have very little to go on."

The bottom line: This is a start.

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