CLEVELAND — Ernest Hatten of Cleveland reports he's been a victim of wage theft by his former employers twice, just one of an estimated 213,000 Ohio workers who are dealing with wage theft annually, according to a new Ohio report.
The report, issued by Policy Matters Ohio researcher Michael Shields, compiled recent U.S. Census survey data in connection with U.S. Department of Labor Statistics and indicates more than half of wage theft cases involve workers in the leisure and hospitality industry though non-payment of Ohio's minimum wage of $9.30.
Hatten told News 5 the wage theft occurred when he worked for a Northeast Ohio security firm and the as a local construction worker tearing down condemned Cleveland homes.
“The security firm called me and said payroll can’t handle your paycheck, we have to take some of your hours back and give you a paid vacation day next week in exchange," Hatten said. "And then the construction company was taking out taxes, medicare, medicaid, I was getting pay stubs and all that stuff, but there was no record of that with the IRS, they had no idea who he was.”
“So, many people aren't reporting wage theft. A lot of people are scared to lose their jobs, they don’t want to speak up, they can’t speak up, they have bills to pay, they have children to raise.”
Shields told News 5 that Ohio's Bureau of Wage and Hour Administration simply doesn't have the resources to adequately police employers who commit wage theft, and said tougher penalties are needed on the federal, state and municipal level.
“Today, Ohio has only six staff members enforcing wage and hour laws for all of Ohio. That's for a workforce of nearly 5.8 million, it’s like having one police officer for all of Columbus," Shields said. "Hispanic workers, those who speak Spanish as their first language are much more likely to be victims, so are working people who have been born outside of the US.”
He continued, “Local governments also do have a role to play here, Columbus and Cincinnati have both passed wage theft ordinances, that’s something Cleveland could do as well.”
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown responded to the Policy Matters Ohio report by urging passage of the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act, which would exact greater penalties against wage violators.
“Dishonest employers across the country steal an estimated $50 billion per year," Brown said. “Forcing workers to work off the clock, leave hours off of their paychecks, pay them off the books, stealing tips and denying overtime pay."
“This bill includes requiring employers to provide employees an initial disclosure of the terms of their employment in a readable language, regular pay stubs to all employees, it would raise the damages that workers receive. This bill triples the owed wages, plus interest. So, if they cheat you out of $3,000, you get $9,000 plus interest. If the company retaliates the damages go up to quadruple the wages owed.”
Meanwhile, wage theft victims like Hatten are urging other victims to come forward and report violations to Ohio's Bureau of Wage and Hour Administration, or seek assistance from theNortheast Ohio Worker Center.
“Figure out what the laws are, figure out what’s going on at your job, speak to your friends, talk to your family members and see if this is something that has happened to them,” Hatten said. "Come together, because we need to speak up on this because it’s happening to a lot of people across the state."