Wage theft is becoming an “epidemic” in North Carolina, according to a study released Tuesday by the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project and the University of North Carolina Immigration/Human Rights Clinic.
The report, “It doesn’t add up,” is based on interviews of 10 workers in the northern part of the state.
Their stories include the experiences of four undocumented Latino immigrants who work in construction, gardening and housecleaning, and a Hispanic U.S. citizen in agriculture.
“While each worker’s story is unique, common themes emerged from the interviews,” report co-author Sabine Schoenbach said. “For all participants, wage theft created economic uncertainty, and even small wage violations had significant financial consequences.
“Moreover, serious barriers to redress, including the threat of retaliation, existed,” she said.
Cases like that of Carlos, a construction worker, who in one of his jobs received only partial payment, and another employee who was not paid overtime for the extra hours he worked, reflected “common practices of the industry.”
Immigrant workers in particular are exposed to abuses by their employers, who threaten to fire them and replace them with others who “just crossed the border” if they should dare ask for a raise.
According to statistics of the state Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Bureau, employers owed North Carolina workers more than $4.6 million in fiscal year 2010-11.
The figure could even be bigger, the study said, since many workers don’t report wage theft for fear of suffering reprisals by their bosses, and also because of the extreme difficulty of seeking compensation.
“In the wake of the one of the worst economic downturns of the modern era, the fundamental contract between worker and employer - that the worker will be paid for the work performed - is being repeatedly broken,” Professor Deborah M. Weissman, director of UNC’s Immigration/Human Rights Policy Clinic, said.
“At the same time, core labor laws are failing to protect many of the state’s workers,” she said.