We Aren’t Talking Enough About Wage Theft

Every year, $50 billion are stolen from American workers by their bosses. The Left and labor should be working tirelessly to pass anti-wage-theft legislation at every level of government.

On January 9, Denver City Council unanimously voted to pass Resolution 22-1614, an anti-wage-theft bill that significantly increases Denver workers’ ability to reclaim wages stolen by their bosses. (Alvaro Gonzalez / Getty Images)

Denver City Council started 2023 on the right foot. On Monday, January 9, the council unanimously voted to pass Resolution 22-1614, an anti-wage-theft bill that significantly increases Denver workers’ ability to reclaim wages stolen by their bosses.

Almost four years in the making, Resolution 22-1614 is not only a victory for the Mile High working class but an opportunity for the American left as a whole. By advocating for similar anti-wage-theft bills across the country, socialists will be able to simultaneously protect workers, punish offending businesses, and rise above the culture war noise to show the working class that the Left is the only political force seriously committed to improving their material conditions.

The Denver Bill

“Wage theft” is broadly defined as when a boss doesn’t pay a worker what is legally owed. Its most common forms are minimum wage violations, unpaid overtime, forcing employees to work through meal breaks, illegal paycheck deductions, and straight-up theft. When taken together, these offenses reach a staggering amount. According to the research of the Denver City Council, up to $728 million is stolen from Colorado workers every year.

In addition to taking money out of individual workers’ pockets, stolen wages compound to deprive working-class communities of much-needed economic activity and taxes to fund crucial social programs such as schools, transportation, and health care. Instead, stolen wages are stashed in the bank accounts of thieves, far from the places they are needed most.

But thanks to the efforts of Denver’s labor unions, left-wing groups like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and DSA-backed city councilors, Resolution 22-1614 now severely hampers would-be criminals by empowering workers to easily reclaim what is rightfully theirs while punishing businesses that steal from Denver’s working class.

The new bill gives aggrieved workers two paths to reclaim stolen wages. The first is through the Denver Labor office, which will investigate the claim and has the ability to charge employers wages owed plus 12 percent interest. The second option is the right of private action, which enables workers to sue in court for treble damages, attorney’s fees, reinstatement of employment, and $100 for every day they went with wages unpaid.

In addition to these avenues, the bill also increases the statute of limitations for wage theft to three years, expands the definition of “worker” to include independent contractors (Uber drivers, DoorDashers, etc.), and institutes “up the chain” restitution, enabling workers to pursue wages from businesses that hired their direct employer.

With clear restitution processes, stern penalties, and expanded protections, Denver’s Resolution 22-1614 is the gold standard model of anti–wage theft legislation. The Left should look to replicate it in every city and state in America.

The National Issue

Unfortunately, wage theft is not confined to the Rocky Mountains. The research conducted by Denver City Council found that up to 68 percent of low-wage, city-based US workers suffered at least one wage-theft violation during the typical workweek. According to the Economic Policy Institute, up to $50 billion is stolen from American workers through wage theft every year. For comparison, the FBI estimates the total value of 2019 robberies to be $482 million, meaning employers stole one hundred times more from Americans than did traditional thieves.

And while any dime stolen from any worker is an inexcusable crime, like most forms of exploitation, the most common victims of wage theft are the most marginalized. As women, migrant workers, and workers of color are the most likely to have their wages stolen, anti-wage-theft protections are a social justice issue as well as a labor one.

With wage theft posing a daily threat to the United States’ working class, left-wing and labor groups across the country should make the passage of anti-wage-theft bills a top priority. While some areas do have existing anti-wage-theft legislation — and there’s the “Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act of 2022” currently sitting in the House of Representatives — it’s evident that what’s already in place isn’t enough to stop this pervasive threat. Given the pressing need to protect US workers’ hard-earned pay, socialists should look to implement anti-wage-theft protections at every level of government.

Legal protection is not the only benefit such a push would bring. In addition to combating injustice, advocating for anti-wage-theft bills would draw a clear line between the political actors who actually seek to help workers and those who employ pro-worker rhetoric to obscure their reactionary politics. To the detriment of the Left, the pro-capitalist establishments of both major political parties are adept at parroting pro-labor sentiments, diverting working-class attention and sapping the socialist movement of potential supporters.

Donald Trump and the Republicans position themselves as “a working-class party” by scapegoating immigrants as the cause of wage stagnation. Meanwhile they cut corporate taxes and endanger workers with deregulation, as seen in the horrific East Palestine train disaster. And as we saw from President Joe Biden’s decision to preemptively break the railroad workers’ strike earlier this year, the Democratic Party rests on its union-endorsement laurels while doing very little for workers themselves.

It could be a long time before socialists have the power to bring about an effective anti-wage-theft bill at the national level. Introducing them to local polities is both more attainable and promising, as political tribalism and the distortions of corporate media are much less prevalent at the lower levels.

Once anti-wage-theft bills are before state legislatures and city councilors, there is little room to waver. Either the politicians are for protecting workers, or they stand with the thieving bosses. If they choose the former, the Left has just delivered important legislation protecting the marginalized and curtailing corporate theft. And if politicians choose the latter, they will be revealed as anti-worker politicians who talk for labor but walk for the bosses. Both outcomes have the potential to bolster our project of building a fighting working class.