WICHITA (AP) — The struggling economy is leading to an increase in employers cheating workers out of pay and benefits.
The Wichita Eagle reported the “wage theft” problem was the subject of a meeting legislators and state and federal labor officials attended Saturday in Wichita.
“We think wage theft only happens to immigrants and the homeless — those who are easily exploited,” said Sulma Arias, who is involved with Sunflower Community Action, a Hispanic advocacy group. “It has become one of the worst symptoms of our economic crisis.”
Kansas Labor Secretary Jim Garner told the group his office collects more than $1 million a year in wages that were wrongfully withheld from workers.
He said he’s seen a growing number of employers who illegally treat workers as independent contractors. The classification means the workers are denied employment benefits when they lose their jobs, and they don’t qualify for worker compensation when they’re injured on the job.
Because no taxes are withheld under such an arrangement, the practice also is unfair to businesses that play by the rules, Garner said.
Shannon Rebolledo, assistant director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wichita office, said her office conducts formal investigations of companies that systematically violate wage and hour laws. She said the office also conducts informal investigations of less serious violations.
Among the most common violations, Rebolledo said, are cases involving an employer who withholds the last paycheck of a worker who has left the company. She said a phone call from her office often ensures the paycheck gets to the worker.
Karen Chaikin, who is with the U.S. Labor Department’s Midwest regional office in Chicago, said the Labor Department is constantly looking for ways to reach out to workers whose rights have been violated by employers.
“We have a tradition of serious enforcement of federal labor laws,” she said. “But we shouldn’t rest on that tradition. We should build on it and do more.”