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AFL leader Trumka hears about wage theft

Richard Trumka, a former mine worker and a graduate of Villanova's law school, leads the nation's largest labor federation - the AFL-CIO - so he hears workers gripe about their pay and benefits all the time.

"It's the difference between poverty and not-poverty," AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka said.
"It's the difference between poverty and not-poverty," AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka said.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Richard Trumka, a former mine worker and a graduate of Villanova's law school, leads the nation's largest labor federation - the AFL-CIO - so he hears workers gripe about their pay and benefits all the time.

But, those workers have pay and benefits.

On Monday, Trumka, in the offices of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, sat quietly as lawyers, workers, and advocates talked about people who work and don't get paid.

"Most of us know that wage theft goes on, but the depth and the breadth of what goes on escapes most of us," Trumka said. "It's enormous. It's the difference between poverty and not-poverty."

Trumka had just finished listening to Temple University law professor Jennifer Lee cite her research showing that 700,000 Pennsylvania workers a week are cheated out of $19 million to $32 million in wages - through employers' failure to pay the minimum wage, or to pay overtime.

Describing wage theft as a "largely hidden problem," she said it often doesn't occur "by accident." Some employers have a business strategy that involves shorting workers, she said.

Particularly vulnerable are child-care workers, kitchen employees in restaurants, building services and grounds workers, construction workers, retail sales people, and bank tellers, she said. She applied Pennsylvania employment patterns to the rate of wage theft found in a 2009 study of wage violations by the National Employment Law Project.

Some workers earn a piece rate that is so low it never adds up to the minimum wage. Some aren't paid for travel time between assignments, Lee said.

Others are misclassified as independent contractors, she said, and they don't believe they are entitled to the minimum wage or overtime.

Trumka and Patrick Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, said unions can help by providing support, organizing coalitions, and pushing legislative efforts to raise, for example, the minimum wage in Pennsylvania.

Michael Barnes, who leads the stagehands union local in Philadelphia, said that young people in the movie and entertainment business also find themselves victims of wage theft.

Particularly gripping to the group was the story relayed by Carlos, a Mexican dishwasher, who asked to be identified only by his first name.

He needed a job, he said, so he didn't ask many questions when he applied for work in April at the upscale Ardé Osteria in the heart of Wayne's thriving restaurant strip on the Main Line.

What he wanted, he told the owner, was a lot of hours - more than 70 a week. Unsaid, but assumed, was that he expected to be paid.

Carlos got the hours - seven days and 84 hours of work a week, for 25 straight days - but not the pay, he said.

"Days passed," Carlos said through an interpreter. "I wasn't paid at all. I felt like I was in jail."

He quit, he said, got another job at a nearby restaurant, and now is owed $2,886 from Arde, according to his lawyer at Community Legal Services.

"His check is here," said Scott Stein, one of Ardé's partners.

Stein said Carlos started in the middle of a two-week pay period, and so he had to wait until his check was processed through the payroll company, ADP. That process can delay checks for three weeks, depending on the pay cycle, Stein said. He said Carlos quit after the restaurant would not pay him in cash.

Stein said he would never cheat his workers.

"To have that kind of reputation would make me disgusted," he said. "I've had issues myself where I haven't gotten paid, and I know that feeling and it's not good."

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