Last month, McDonald's was hit with multiple class-action lawsuits alleging that the company routinely violated minimum wage, overtime and other workplace laws through a variety of illegal schemes that had one goal in common: drive down labor costs by stealing from workers.
Last week, we learned that law-breaking in the fast-food industry is not limited to McDonald's. A national poll surveying workers at two dozen fast-food chains finds that 89 percent of these workers had wages stolen by their employer.
The scope of the wage theft is stunning. But it's not surprising. It underscores an often overlooked fact of life for fast-food workers: the practice of stealing wages, commonly called "wage theft," is a national epidemic. It eats away at the livelihood of already underpaid workers, and it's a persistent problem in the fast-food industry, which is why the Department of Labor has named restaurants and fast food as one of its priority industries for strategic enforcement.
As the report documents, fast-food corporations are finding ever-increasing ways to rob workers of their pay. Sixty percent of surveyed fast-food workers experienced "off-the-clock" violations — meaning they were required to work (without pay) before punching in and after punching out. Nearly half — 48 percent — who worked more than 40 hours in a week did not receive overtime pay. Workers even reported not being reimbursed for gas while making deliveries, having meals they had not eaten deducted from their paychecks, and having their paychecks bounce.
These findings are commonplace in the low-wage industries that are increasingly defining our labor market. In a 2009 National Employment Law Project study that surveyed 4,500 low-wage workers in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, researchers found a quarter were paid less than the minimum wage, 76 percent were not paid overtime wages owed to them, and 70 percent of those who were required to work before or after their regular shift did not receive any pay for this work.
And the effect of this rampant non-compliance with core labor standards is staggering — the average worker in the 2009 study lost $2,600 a year due to wage theft, a significant portion of an already paltry paycheck. Extrapolate this sum to the growing mass of low-wage workers across the country and literally billions of dollars are being stolen.
This theft isn't simply a matter of injustice for these workers. Communities suffer when wage theft becomes a way of doing business. Law-abiding businesses can't compete with wage cheats who shave their operating costs by breaking the law. The less money that wage earners bring home, the less money they have to spend on basics like food, clothing and household necessities, depriving local businesses of much needed consumer dollars and hampering our economic recovery.
The poll surveyed workers at our nation's largest and most recognizable fast-food corporations, including Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's. This highlights another feature of wage theft — it's not limited to the underground economy or to a few bad apples. It happens throughout our economy, creating a race to the bottom in which employers large and small routinely violate workplace laws once considered sacred. Illegal practices like forcing employees to work through required rest breaks or before punching in and after punching out, not paying time and a half for overtime, deducting from wages for mandatory job-related expenses have all become accepted business strategies, especially in low-wage industries, for employers to reduce labor costs.
It's past time to hold these employers accountable for cheating workers out of their hard-earned pay. Nothing is as basic or as uncontroversial as the proposition that if you work, you should get paid for that work. As some of our nation's largest low-wage employers, fast food employers should be setting standards, not breaking them.
Tsedeye Gebreselassie is a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project (nelp.org).