CLEVELAND — Andy Schumann is a Cleveland musician who reports wage theft is sadly a way of life for too many Northeast Ohio artists and he's hoping for greater accountability and penalties on companies who steal from their employees.
Schumann, who is a member of the Cleveland Art Workers Collective, told News 5 he's been victim of wage theft multiple times, and believes too often wage theft in Ohio isn't reported due to a lack of information or fear of employer retribution.
“Since I was a teenager I’ve been playing shows," Schumann said. “It would be a difficult process to actually get paid. We would be asked to work more hours and it would often add up to be less than the state minimum wage per person. But it really didn’t hit me until I started working as an event organizer myself.”
U.S. Labor Department data compiled by Policy Matters Ohio researcher Michael Shields in a 2022 report indicated more than 213,000 Ohioans fall victim to wage theft every year.
“The average victim loses almost $2,900 if they keep their job for a full year, that’s almost quarter of their take-home pay," said Shields. "Wage theft is costing this nation more than robberies, burglaries and property crimes combined."
"Unfortunately the gap is in enforcement, we have too little enforcement here in Ohio, we’ve got only six wage and hour investigators,” Shields added. “Many people who experience wage theft never come forward at all, they may not know their rights, they may fear retaliation, which unfortunately too often does happen.”
In Cleveland, the Northeast Ohio Worker Center and its board chairperson Grace Heffernan are working to educate and empower employees who believe they are victims of wage theft.
“In America it’s perfectly acceptable for an employer to steal from their employees, but it is not acceptable for an employee to steal from their employer," said Heffernan. “Most people do not know that they are a victim of wage theft. It is absolutely the norm, particularly in low wage work."
Educating those who are unsure of their rights is an important and confidential step, she added.
“Our primary goal is community education, and as part of that we’ve started running wage theft clinics,” said Heffernan. "Come in and learn about your rights. It’s all confidential, and the volunteers at the workers center will never move forward in talking to your employer, or process paperwork before you are comfortable.”
The agency said it's working on reducing the problem with training and education for companies and organizations, and issued the following statement:
We have five investigators and an investigator supervisor who can assist when needed on cases. The number of investigators has settled in at this level and remained consistent for the past 4-5 years.
The Bureau of Wage and Hour is a complaint driven agency. The Bureau’s staffing levels are designed to meet the demand for investigations. That demand is the result of the number of complaints filed by the public. Our current investigators have consistently met their statutory deadlines and internal timeline goals.
Should our newly created portal result in an increase in the number of investigations coming into the Bureau then staffing levels will be reviewed by the administration to ensure that the increased demand is met.
In 2022 we have received 1095 complaints, which includes 94 complaints that came in under our old database.
While the Wage & Hour Bureau is complaint driven, we believe that the best outcome for a complaint is to eliminate the need for that complaint. With that in mind, over the past 10 years we have put an emphasis on training and education. Right now, we offer virtual and in-person training opportunities for businesses and public organizations. Our trainings cover all three enforcement areas which we oversee: Minimum Wage & OT, Prevailing Wage and Minor Labor.
We do believe that the increased accessibility of the online complaint system and the ease of use have contributed to the increase in complaints this year as noted above. This online functionality was made available to the public on April 4, 2022. Improving technology to better meet the needs of Ohioans is a top priority of the Department of Commerce.
Meanwhile, Schumann believes musicians, artists and independent workers need to take steps to protect themselves, and government needs to ramp up company accountability.
“You need to be always asking for a minimum payment, you need to have it writing, you need to have an understanding, a guarantee that you’ll be paid for your work," said Schumann. “I think it’s really important that we have a higher standard of accountability for companies in Northeast Ohio that engage in wage theft.”