Philadelphia Establishes Office to Investigate Wage Theft

Wage theft–the illegal refusal to pay, or the underpayment, of wages due—often happens in hidden, incremental ways that add up to big numbers. It can take many forms, including asking employees to work off the clock, paying workers less than minimum wage, or misclassifying employees to avoid paying benefits or overtime.

A startling report on wage theft in Pennsylvania recently published by the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic at the Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University Beasley School of Law revealed widespread wage theft throughout Pennsylvania. By the end of this week, 400,000 Pennsylvanians will have been illegally deprived of between $19 million and $32 million due to wage theft.

In an average work week in Philadelphia, 36,435 low-wage workers experienced a minimum wage violation. Philadelphia employers who violate the law are estimated to steal 15% or more of a low-wage employee’s paycheck in a given week. This means the worker loses about $51 – $87 per week.

It can be difficult for workers to do anything about wage theft, even if they know about it.

Yesterday, Philadelphia City Council passed an ordinance that will give workers the opportunity to report and rectify the theft of wages. The ordinance, proposed by Philadelphia City Councilman William Greenlee, will establish an office in city government to investigate wage theft complaints and implement penalties.

“It has penalties and fines in there, we give the wage coordinator pretty good discretion in taking action,” Greenlee told WHYY Newsworks.  “We’re not looking to tar and feather anybody, we’re looking to get people paid what they are supposed to be paid.”

As for the rest of Pennsylvania, several bills currently under consideration in the state Legislature would increase the penalties for violating minimum wage and various other forms of wage theft. HB 250, sponsored by Rep. Patty Kim with bipartisan co-sponsorship of more than 60 state representatives, would raise the penalty for both wage theft and for retaliating against an employee for reporting said theft. Senate bill 195, introduced by Senator Tartaglione, similarly addresses wage theft.

Both bills are part of the Agenda for Women’s Health, a legislative package of evidence-based bills designed to protect the health and economic security of women in Pennsylvania. And both bills have sat in Committee neglected for so long that their respective primary sponsors recently filed discharge resolutions, a parliamentary maneuver intended to force a vote. Stay tuned.

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Founded in 1974, the Women’s Law Project is the only public interest law center devoted to women’s rights in Pennsylvania. WLP is a founding member of the PA Campaign for Women’s Health, a growing collaboration of organizations and individuals calling for an end to ideological politics trumping common-sense policy solutions in Pennsylvania. 

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