I am a class action wage theft attorney. Many of my colleagues, family and friends are not familiar with the term wage theft. In the legal field wage theft attorneys are generally known to practice wage and hour litigation. It sounds much nicer than calling it what it is: stealing wages from workers.
Stealing wages is nothing new, employers have been doing it to their workers for centuries. I consulted my copy of Black’s Law Dictionary that I bought in law school. However, the nation’s leading law dictionary was no help. It did not have any entry at all for wage theft.
I then consulted a more authoritative source: Wikipedia. Wikipedia describes wage theft as “the illegal withholding of wages or the denial of benefits that are rightfully owed to an employee.”
That looks like a good working definition for the purposes of this blog, so let’s go with that.
Why Is Wage Theft Treated Differently From Other Kinds of Theft?
The improper withholding of wages earned by a worker is theft of services. If a kid sneaks into a movie theater without paying for it, he can be prosecuted for larceny. Get caught jumping the turnstile in a New York City subway station and it will cost you $100, forty times the regular fare. Moreover, people don’t think twice when companies press charges against their employees for embezzlement, taking company property or stealing cash from the till. Why is it different when the victim is an employee and the thief is the company she works for?
I thought about whether there are any other crimes where the relationship of the victim to the perpetrator can be so decisive to the analysis. I came up with the case of marital rape. Historically, criminal laws exempted husbands from being convicted of raping their wives. The origin of these laws has been traced to the idea that women are essentially the property of their husbands and marital rape was thus an impossibility. As stated by Sir Matthew Hale, Chief Justice in England, marital rape could not be recognized since the wife “hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” The effects of this policy persisted for centuries in the United States. The criminalization of marital rape in the United States did not begin until the mid-1970s and by 1993 it was a crime in all 50 states; however, some exceptions for marital rape continued long after that.
I do not know if our blindness to wage theft is a relic of the European history of serfdom or some other aspect of the relationship that makes people think differently about it. I do know that it is time to change the dialogue.
Are Attitudes Changing?
Hopefully it won’t take decades to turn the tide on wage theft. Thanks to the hard work of a number of worker’s rights groups, politicians, media outlets, and concerned citizens, the wage theft crisis has received more recognition in recent years. California and New York have enacted Wage Theft Prevention Acts and other states are following suit. In New York a few employers have been criminally prosecuted for stealing their workers wages. Yesterday, the New York Attorney General announced the arrest of the owner of a cleaning company who was charged with failure to pay wages under the state labor laws and retaliation.
Rapists and thieves should be prosecuted without regard to their relationship to the victim. When husbands rape their wives they should go to jail. When an employer refuses to pay his workers in a manner that constitutes theft, he should be prosecuted as vigorously as any other thief.