In a recent round table discussion on labor legislation in California, Maria Yolanda Torres, a Subway worker from San Jose, Calif., spoke out about a situation where her boss was stealing her wages.
“I didn't get paid [for working] ... for me, it was very hard to buy groceries and pay my bills … because the owner didn't pay me,” Torres said.
Her story is unfortunately not unique. Earlier this year, Jack in the Box workers walked off the job because they weren’t getting paid for their scheduled breaks or for overtime. After walking out, Jack in the Box worker Ana Nande said, “I'm on strike because for about two years I worked without getting a break. I usually have to work 8 hours without a 10 min break.” That means for two years, Nande has had both her breaks and wages stolen from her.
Wage theft occurs anytime an employer fails to pay the wages owed to an employee by law or by contract. Wage theft is illegal, yet offenders rarely see real repercussions. In a recent report, the Center for Public Integrity reported that from 2005 to 2020 the U.S. Labor Department only fined one in four repeat offenders of wage theft. Overall, wage theft occurs despite its illegality because the Labor Department is lenient on offenders.
The specifics of wage theft can be hard to spot because it is so commonplace. If your boss asks you to work before you clock in, skip a break, refuses to pay you overtime, pays below the minimum wage, doesn’t pay you for required sick time, or takes your tips, you might be a victim of wage theft! While wage theft hits hourly workers the hardest, it can also affect salaried workers too. Of course, some of the finer points here depend on specific state laws, but these are widespread labor violations with few repercussions for the offending boss.
When it comes to clear moral guidance on wage theft, there’s little in the Bible that is as clear and straightforward as James’ admonition of wealthy people who exploit and steal from poor people.
As James 5 tells us, these cries for justice have reached the Lord’s ears: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts”(5:4). God is listening, but are we?
Stolen wages are an epidemic in the United States, and it’s time for Christians to listen to these suffering workers and join the fight to push back against exploitative bosses who steal workers’ wages. Christians can help by showing up for workers when they strike and by organizing around state and federal policies that would advance workers’ rights.
While some politically and fiscally conservative Christians argue that the Bible has nothing to do with economic justice, it’s hard to maintain that perspective after reading James’ words. The Bible is clear: If you’re an exploitative boss, you should clear your schedule and start weeping and wailing because God is pissed at you.
When it comes to the prevalence of wage theft in the U.S., there’s a lot of weeping and wailing to do. For example, in a 2022 study conducted by the Service Employees International Union, around 85 percent of fast food workers in California are reportedly victims of at least one form of wage theft, and 57 percent are victims of multiple forms of wage theft.
In Florida, the situation is even worse: In 2002, then-Governor Jeb Bush dismantled the Department of Labor and Employment Security, the main governmental body dealing with wage violations. Since then, Florida has operated without any oversight on wage violations at the state level. When Florida raised their state minimum wage in 2005, its wage theft violations doubled in only two years. Now we’re seeing history repeat itself: In 2020, Floridians voted to raise their minimum wage gradually from $8.56 per hour to $15 per hour by 2026. Yet, without any state oversight of wage theft violations, wage theft will likely follow the previous trend and continue in 2022 and beyond.
Overall, according to the Economic Policy Institute, it’s estimated that employers steal around $15 billion in wages from workers’ paychecks each year. However, an important caveat here is that $15 billion is only what is reported. Wage theft is likely even more widespread, with many cases going unreported. All of these big numbers can be unwieldy when trying to wrap your mind around just how big of a problem wage theft is. To illustrate the point more clearly, the EPI reports that the $15 billion a year in stolen wages surpasses the value of all robberies, burglaries, larceny, and motor vehicle theft combined in a year in the United States. Wage theft is possibly the biggest and most rampant crime in the U.S. and the victims are predominantly poor and low-wage workers, especially workers of color.
Wage theft is a problem regardless of industry, yet farm workers face unique challenges with wages. In 2020, The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division conducted an investigation that found that agricultural employers stole $76 million in wages from 154,000 workers over the past 20 years. Again, it’s important to note that these are only the reported wage violations and are not entirely representative. When it comes to agricultural workers, many don’t report wage violations at all because of their immigration status might put them at risk of increased scrutiny.
The legal status of some farm workers drives home an important point when it comes to wage theft: Wage theft occurs when there is an imbalance of power between bosses and workers, like a boss's power to threaten reporting undocumented workers to immigration authorities, or when workers don’t have contracts. When workers can’t collectively bargain with their employer and hold them accountable for labor and wage violations, employers are more likely to take advantage of workers. This is why wage theft is rampant in industries with low union density. Consider the differences between fast food workers in the United States and in Australia. In the U.S., fast food workers regularly suffer from employers stealing wages; in Australia, where McDonald’s workers have a union, they have the means to protect themselves.
Recently, a union representing over 250,000 McDonald’s workers in Australia has filed a massive lawsuit against their employer. The union alleges that McDonald’s told workers they could exchange their legal entitlement to a break for a free drink or take several minibreaks that add up to 10 minutes. If the court rules in favor of the union, McDonald’s will be forced to pay their workers $250 million in back wages.
Christian advocacy and organizing shouldn’t stop at the strike line. Wage theft is a structural problem that can be confronted at several levels. Workers can fight against workplace wage violations by organizing and taking concerted action against their bosses. We can also confront wage theft through state and federal legislation. For example, fast food workers in California are fighting for state legislation called the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act or FAST Recovery Act. If passed, the bill would create a state-wide sectoral council for the fast food industry in which fast food workers would sit alongside franchise owners.
Nationally, Christians should rally around the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and pressure their representatives to support the legislation. The PRO Act would lead to more organizing and unions, which would give workers more power to fight back against violations like wage theft. Broadly, the PRO Act fixes classification issues that consider workers as contractors rather than employees, it overrides so-called “right-to-work” laws at the state level, it increases fines for union-busting employers, it outlaws captive audience meetings, and it makes it harder for employers to stall out contract negotiations. In short, the PRO Act gives workers more leverage in organizing their workplaces.
In James 5, we hear that the rich ought to wail and weep for the misery that is coming to them. It’s easy to write this off as just an otherworldly punishment for the crimes done in the world, and there might be something to that. But Christians should consider the types of judgment they can be involved with here and now. For the rich exploiters of our society, there’s nothing more miserable than seeing the profits you’ve stolen from workers dry up when those workers begin to organize a union. God hears workers crying out for justice against an exploitative boss, and it’s time for Christians to listen up too.