Some may think that it’s a strange time to look at the wage theft issue when over a million people in the US are infected with COVID 19, over 100,000 have died, nearly 40 million people are unemployed, and our most vulnerable population is facing devastating food, housing, and economic insecurity.
Many workers are faced with no choice but to risk their health and lives to go to work. So there is no better time to think about a world that protects vulnerable workers. So many have faced exploitation at their jobs. We must have structures in place to protect them.
For low-wage workers especially, if their wages are stolen, it means their families may struggle to pay the rent, put food on the table, buy school supplies, or pay for medications. Wage theft is a growing crisis. It affects many industries but is very prevalent in the construction and service industries and happens in many ways. Workers in construction may be misclassified as independent contractors; some are paid in cash, denied overtime and paid in lump sums regardless of how many hours they worked.
This has an effect not only on the workers but also on honest businesses that can’t compete with those that are not playing by the rules. It actually robs the community of significant tax revenue. In the construction industry, companies that break the law get an unfair economic advantage and undercut law-abiding businesses.
We need to consider, as a community, how we hold businesses accountable when they break the law. How will we make it clear that when you run a business or do construction in Amherst fairness is not negotiable?
A study of nearly 4,500 low-wage workers by the National Employment Law Project found that over two-thirds of them had experienced wage theft and that employers stole more than $56 million in workers’ wages every week. Research published by the University of Massachusetts Amherst asserts that “the illegal theft of workers’ wages, especially those of undocumented immigrant laborers, have reached epidemic levels in the construction industry in Massachusetts.”
Our Town needs bylaws and ordinances that give Amherst officials oversight to assure labor laws are being followed, and workers are being paid the wages they earn. Let’s follow in the footsteps of Northampton, Easthampton, and Springfield who guarantee such rights. I support bylaws that not only have consequences for those who do not comply, but also include vetting of all new businesses and construction to assure past compliance. We should not be using public funds or granting business licenses to companies with a history of wage theft abuse.
Rick Last has been a resident of Amherst for 25 years. He is a former teacher and district mentor teacher in the Amherst schools. He also volunteers with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, fighting for the rights of low wage and immigrant workers.