Wage theft is a crime. You may have assumed this to be true, but you probably don’t know that in reality it is not treated like one.
Wage theft happens when an employer with intent to defraud, fails to give workers earned wages or benefits. It is not legally different from when a worker steals cash from the register, but the reality of enforcement leads to far different results. An employer who suspects a worker of theft has the benefit of “free” investigators (police) and “free” lawyers (prosecutors). Because we have not created the political will and resources to prosecute employers, a worker’s only remedy requires civil litigation and large legal bills.
It is not a crime to make a mistake, or fail to make payroll. But in Minnesota, a recent study found that 23% of construction workers suffer some form of wage theft. That’s tens of thousands of workers robbed immediately upon giving their labor to employers. And these employers are virtually never held accountable despite the fact that Minnesota has robust wage-theft laws. Based on discussions with prosecutors and law enforcement, I have not heard of one person in Minnesota who has been convicted solely under our wage theft statute. Not one.
Let me describe two instances of alleged theft that I have dealt with as an attorney. A friend of mine found a cell phone while working at one of his two jobs and reported it to his manager who responded with “not my problem.” Unsure of what to do, my friend took the phone home for safekeeping. I should also mention that my friend is African American. When suspicion fell on him of stealing the (recovered) phone, he was arrested at his second job. They put cuffs on him at his job explaining to his second employer that he was being arrested as an “‘alleged thief.” We spent the better part of the year getting this charge dismissed. My second client had fulfilled all the requirements of receiving a commission right before he resigned, after two weeks’ notice. My client was owed $7,000 plus commission, but the employer, presumably angry at his departure, refused to pay. Because he is a successful professional, he can afford to hire our firm to litigate.
Tens of thousands of Minnesota workers have no disposable income to stand up for the basic principle that employers shouldn’t steal from them.
There was a time when domestic violence was not considered a crime that law enforcement could do anything about. Societal views were different; investigation can be difficult and requires additional resources. Thankfully, over time we have developed the will and the resources to better hold perpetrators accountable and sometimes even get them needed help to end their behavior as well as protecting victims (although there is still much work to do). In the city where I am elected, we have hired and partnered with social workers and victim advocates to get more justice for survivors.
It is past time for us to make similar investments to protect workers when their wages are stolen. I am proud of the work of City Leaders Against Wage Theft where I am founding chair of a group of more than 20 elected leaders from cities across Minnesota working together to bring more resources and innovation to correcting this unequal treatment.
There is meaningful work taking place between the Hennepin and Ramsey county attorney offices and Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office through the creation of the Labor Advisory Council. Ultimately, in addition to policy work, public servants like me have to raise public consciousness or workers will continue to be routinely robbed with near total impunity.
We currently have a crisis of confidence in our system of justice. As the unequal enforcement of employment theft demonstrates, it is not caused just by policies, but by the realities of how people with power and money are often treated differently than those without. To create confidence in our system, and ultimately public safety and real justice, we must reckon with these realities and create the will to do things differently.
Simon Trautmann is a Richfield City Council member and a candidate for Hennepin County Attorney