Editorial: Wage theft should be at the top of Legislature’s agenda

If you put in an honest day’s work, you should get an honest day’s pay. It’s that simple. The problem is, it’s not happening. Wage theft is occurring across the Commonwealth and dishonest employers are getting away with it, because Beacon Hill has continuously sided with business interests over hard-working families.

The numbers are shocking. About $700 million is stolen from workers every year, the majority of whom are low-income people of color. Only a fraction of those wages, less than 1 percent, is recovered by state authorities.

Often, wage theft happens when bad employers use subcontracting and outsourcing to dodge their basic responsibilities. These crimes are so pervasive, they’re overwhelming the capacity of our existing labor laws and enforcement mechanisms. They’re also a drain on our economy that siphons much-needed revenue, funds that could go toward improving roads, schools, transit, and other public infrastructure.

Cities and towns across the Commonwealth understand what’s at stake, and they’ve shown real leadership standing up for the public good and confronting these criminals head on.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh led the charge in 2014, when he issued a powerful executive order protecting vulnerable workers from wage theft.  At the time of the historic announcement, he said: “It’s illegal to deny fairly earned wages. This executive order empowers workers to demand what they have worked for. I’m committed to stopping violations and holding employers to the letter of the law.”

Since then, more municipalities, including Chelsea and Lynn, have also passed important anti-wage theft measures. And just this month, the Springfield City Council passed the strongest legislation yet. It ensures that businesses are in full compliance with wage and hour laws, including prevailing wage, before they receive any tax incentives from the city.  

It’s a groundbreaking measure, and further proof that cities and towns are showing the way forward, but we still need a statewide solution that protects families from Norwood to New Bedford from this unlawful crime wave.

The state Senate gets it and last session unanimously passed the Act to Prevent Wage Theft and Promote Employer Accountability, which would give the attorney general additional tools to hold dishonest companies accountable when they break the law. But the House failed to take action, despite the vast grassroots movement, especially in black and brown communities, to urge them to stop this devastating epidemic.

It was a disappointing end to a legislative session that could have made a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of Massachusetts families, but our work of course continues. And now, it’s with a renewed sense of hope. After lifetimes of being overlooked and underrepresented, communities of color are building power and achieving remarkable success, electing progressives who support workers’ rights, racial justice, and broad economic opportunity. These newly energized organizers, activists, and voters aren’t going away. And just as they’re effectively championing municipal solutions to pressing problems, and successfully electing candidates who share their values, they’ll continue to insist that the State House stand up for the public good.

Darlene Lombos is executive director of Community Labor United and vice president of the Greater Boston Labor Council, and Gladys Vega is executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative.

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