Republished with permission from FAIR, by Janine Jackson
Janine Jackson interviewed Justicia Lab’s Rodrigo Camarena about wage theft for the October 6, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Investigation by the National Retail Federation found that the effect of store theft by shoplifters and by employees is largely on par with historical trends. But mere data don’t stand a chance against corporate media’s energetic interest in the smash-and-grab phenomenon, which they confidently explain is the reason that Target, for instance, is closing stores in what one news account called “a series of liberal cities.”
News media can make something a crisis, a thing you should worry about, when they want to. Video can be found; harmed people can be interviewed.
But what if there’s no CCTV? What if the harm isn’t being done erratically, sporadically, caught on camera—but every day, in documents, in tax filings, in one-on-one unrecorded conversations between employees who need their job, and bosses who want their profit rate?
News media interested in crime—its impact on human beings, on society, its cost to the economy—would be interested in wage theft, the more than $50 billion a year stolen from workers in this country. But when is the last time your nightly local news talked about that, or encouraged you to be outraged and concerned and moved to action about that? There are efforts to address this ongoing, mundane thievery, but so far it seems to be under the radar of news outlets that, in every other way, suggest they care very much about crime, all the time.
Rodrigo Camarena is director of Justicia Lab, and co-author, with Cristobal Gutierrez, of the article “How to End Wage Theft—and Advance Immigrant Justice” that appeared earlier this month on NonProfitQuarterly.org. He is also co-creator of ¡Reclamo!, a tech-enabled initiative to combat wage theft.
He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Rodrigo Camarena.
Rodrigo Camarena: Hi, Janine. Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: I don’t think it’s crazy to say that many people truly don’t know what wage theft is, how it happens, what it is. What would you have us know about, first of all, the scale and the impact of wage theft? What does it look like?
RC: Sure. Wage theft is so common and so ubiquitous that we don’t really consider it in our day-to-day lives. But, like you mentioned, it’s this huge problem. It’s actually the largest form of theft, when you compare it to burglaries, armed robberies, motor vehicle thefts combined. And it happens whenever a worker is deprived of the wages that they’re owed lawfully. So that could mean not being paid a minimum wage, not being paid overtime, having deductions from someone’s paycheck made, or just not paying someone; they show up at the job one day and the person that hired them isn’t there anymore. Failing to honor sick leave or other benefits is another form of wage theft.
So it’s very common. It’s a term that we use as advocates to underline what is happening here, which is that you’re being deprived of what you’re owed and it’s being taken from you, but it’s not a legal term per se.
JJ: Yeah, I always think of the older sibling that holds your hand and makes you hit yourself, and says, “Why are you hitting yourself?” It’s like, something is going on, but you’re not allowed to complain about it, because somehow it’s your fault. Somehow you didn’t take that pay stub home and say, oh wait, I’m owed this and I didn’t get this. It seems like it’s a very invisible kind of crime.
RC: That’s right. It’s something that happens on a daily basis, actually, and in some sectors and industries, it’s more likely for you to be a victim of wage theft than to be paid your full wage. And it’s a problem that disproportionately impacts low-wage workers, women and immigrants, and in particular undocumented immigrants, who often don’t feel like they can stand up for themselves, or request what they’re owed lawfully, because of their status.
So I think there’s a lot of misinformation about your rights as a worker that might prevent people from standing up for themselves and defending these rights, but this is part of the challenge in addressing this problem.
JJ: I wanted to ask you, there does seem to be a particular impact on immigrants here, and it’s not to say that it doesn’t affect low-wage workers across the board, but immigrants are in a particularly precarious situation.
RC: That’s right. And in the state of New York, where I am, and I think this is probably the case in many other states, it’s twice as likely for you to experience wage theft if you’re foreign-born than if you’re native-born.
This makes complete sense, when you think about immigrant labor in this country. It’s often some of the toughest jobs, that a lot of people don’t want to do, but that immigrants are willing to do because they need income; they’re here to work and contribute. And that puts them in a precarious position, because it allows the employer to not only pay them very little, in many cases less than they’re lawfully owed, but also exposes them to other forms of exploitation and harassment.
We can talk about sexual harassment, we can talk about discrimination because of language, of country of origin, gender or sex, and these are overlapping issues that really do a lot of harm to people that we depend on for some of the most critical industries in our country.
JJ: And I know that victims often don’t even understand that they were supposed to be paid for overtime, or they were supposed to get sick leave. There’s an absence of education from the jump, so that workers don’t even know what they’re entitled to.
RC: That’s right. Very few people will tell you what the minimum wage is, both federally or at the state level. It’s difficult to know sometimes that there’s been a change to sick leave laws in the state, or wages. And so much of the problem is really about getting this information out there more proactively.
In the state of New York, again, where I am, it’s actually required that an employer communicate what your wage is and if that wage has changed, and they can be fined for not doing so. But this is not the case across the country, and it’s often not the case even when it is mandated by law.
JJ: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, I’ve read about efforts to combat wage theft, and there is legislation in the works, and I hope to talk about it. Kathy Hochul, here in New York, is saying wage theft is now larceny under New York penal law, which means that prosecutors can seek stronger penalties.
But what are your thoughts in general, in terms of the legal—this is a crime, theft is a crime, but what are your thoughts on the state of the legal response to this problem?
RC: Absolutely. Theft is a crime, and I think we need to understand it. It’s not just a crime that impacts workers who have been victims of wage theft, but it’s a crime that impacts all of us.
Wage theft contributes to poverty; the Department of Labor study of California and New York, showed this a couple of years back. It contributes to people’s need to use public benefits or welfare, and it steals from city and state tax revenues.
So it’s a crime that doesn’t just hurt the most vulnerable amongst us, but it’s a crime that impacts all of us indirectly. We need to treat it as a societal crime. We need to treat it as the severe act of injustice that it is. And I think raising the cost for employers is certainly one approach. In some municipalities, businesses can lose their licenses if they are found to be repeat offenders. So there’s a lot of policy solutions.
But I think part of what we need to understand is that there’s also a cultural expectation at this point that if you are either a low-wage worker, a new worker, someone who has been marginalized by society, that you shouldn’t expect more than what you might be paid by an employer. And I think that’s wrong.
JJ: And I want to just pull you back, in terms of the problem, that sometimes folks will say, “Oh, they won this case,” but sometimes even when you win, workers don’t collect. I just wanted to just bring you back to the reality of it, that the law may say, yes, wage theft happened here, and it still might not be possible to make workers whole.
RC: That’s right. In many cases, even when an employer is found guilty of having committed wage theft, they might then declare bankruptcy, and in some cases start a new company where they go ahead and repeat these same offenses. There are some efforts to try to hold assets accountable and put them on liens, in the event that a business has declared bankruptcy.
But, you’re right, the problem is also structural. We punish businesses after the fact. There isn’t a lot of prevention that’s happening during the event of wage theft, right? Many folks report after they’ve had their wages stolen, or they’ve been fired by their employer.
So I think there needs to be a lot of work at the local and state level to encourage people to report wage theft, to encourage people to know and understand their rights, and find solutions while they’re being victimized.
JJ: Right, and then I want to ask: Why do workers, who are already so vulnerable, who already have their whole life hanging by the thread of this job, why do they have to be the one to bring the complaints? I know that that brings us back to how Justicia Lab worked with Make the Road New York to develop this ¡Reclamo! tool. And I want to ask you to talk about the need that you saw for that, and then talk a little bit about this ¡Reclamo! tool and what it does.
RC: Sure. So the ¡Reclamo! app was a collaborative effort between us at Justicia Lab, which is a program of Pro Bono Net, and Make the Road New York, a worker center here in New York City and New York state.
And I think the need we saw was twofold. One, in the short term, there aren’t enough lawyers to help address every wage theft claim, or enough investigators at the state level to investigate these claims. So we said, how can we use technology that, one, helps someone identify if they’ve been a victim of wage theft and, two, file a wage theft claim in New York State, but also perform strategies that we know are effective at recovering stolen wages, like writing a demand letter, which is typically written by an attorney, or just calling the employer and having a structured conversation around how they can settle this matter.
So ¡Reclamo! does all those three things. It files a complaint with the state of New York. It produces a demand letter, which is something a lawyer might make, and it helps you have a conversation with an employer around what wages you’re owed and how they can settle the matter.
And I think in the long term, what we’re really trying to do with this tool is empower non-lawyers to feel comfortable navigating this very convoluted process, and also give advocates data that they can use to tackle the structural problem here, to inform enforcement.
In some cases, advocates like Make the Road have approached the Department of Labor and said: “Hey, we see a problem in the car wash industry. Can we approach this problem together, enforce this problem together?” And that’s been effective as a strategy as well.
So there’s a number of solutions that we’re trying to put forward with this initiative, and we’re very excited about the response so far.
JJ: Do you see any role at the federal level for this? I mean, it seems such an across-the-board problem, and I read about Maura Healey, I read about people, and it sounds like people are saying, “We’re going to pass some legislation to make crime illegal”—wage theft should already be illegal, and so is it a matter of enforcement? And do you see any role at all at the federal level here?
RC: Definitely. I mean, the federal government can do a lot. One, they can start by raising the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 for decades, but they can invest more in enforcement. They can invest more in public education. They can increase the cost to employers that might commit wage theft, repeat offenders.
And they can help advocates by sharing data proactively, both federal data and state-level data around this problem. There’s a lot of information that we still don’t have about the scale of this problem, and I think if there’s better collaboration between advocates and government, we can really make a dent on this issue.
JJ: I can’t really see a more compelling story for news media. They’re reporting every day about people’s difficulties, and the idea that somehow they would not include the fact that their employers are systematically keeping their wages, while they’re out of the other side of their mouth fighting to make those wages lower, that they’re keeping some of the wages that these people have actually earned.
I don’t understand why that is not a meaningful story. It’s a story about crime and violence, frankly. People’s lives are being affected here. And so I just wanted to, finally, ask you, what do you make of media coverage of wage theft, but also just of the conditions around it that allow it, that support it? Is there anything that you would change about the way reporters approach the issue?
RC: I think we have to recognize that wage theft and worker exploitation is, in many cases, built into the business models of many industries. Our food is relatively inexpensive, given the amount of labor it takes to grow and pick it. Our restaurants and other services, domestic work, it’s severely undercompensated, and that’s by design, in many cases. But it’s also something that we don’t talk about.
We don’t talk about immigrant labor being the backbone of a number of industries; what we do talk about, I guess on the right, is immigrants stealing jobs and incurring more costs for society. But we don’t talk about the subsidy that they provide to many businesses and many industries.
We don’t talk about our dependence on low-wage work. And I think that’s the reality that many Americans and policymakers don’t want to address, because it’s complicated, and it forces a conversation around comprehensive immigration reform and workers’ rights more broadly, which I know is something that in many cases is just not popular to talk about.
JJ: Who would reporters talk to that might change the story that they tell?
RC: I think talking to large agricultural producers, talking to restaurant groups, talking to construction companies that, in many cases, employ immigrant workers to get the job done at a certain cost, I think would be valuable. We don’t scrutinize the cost of labor in many of these industries.
Even as consumers, we don’t want to know that our food was grown and picked by someone that was making $8 an hour, or was being paid by each piece of crop that they harvested. We don’t want to know that someone that is in the service industry isn’t getting paid an hourly minimum wage, or getting paid on tips, or not being paid at all in many cases, because they’re maybe earning their ability to one day perform that job.
So I think there’s a lot of different approaches that we can take to understanding this problem, but it does require understanding how businesses have built this into their business model, as well as the societal impact at large when it comes to how families are affected, and also how states are undercut when it comes to the collection of tax revenue.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Rodrigo Camarena. He’s director of Justicia Lab online at JusticiaLab.org, and you can learn about that ¡Reclamo! tool that we’re talking about at MakeTheRoadNY.org. Thank you so much, Rodrigo Camarena, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
RC: Thanks so much, Janine. Happy to be here.
FAIRNESS & ACCURACY IN REPORTING
FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information.