The minimum wage has been a hot button issue for some time now. Lawmakers are acting at the city, state and federal levels to control minimum wage levels based on their political leanings. Many on the left are working to see that full-time workers are not poverty-ridden. On the right, the interests of corporations and business owners dictate policy. The battle between workers and employers ignores one of the primary problems with minimum wage laws – they are not enforced in any comprehensive or reliable way.
An investigation by POLITICO found that many states are ill-equipped to respond to situations of wage theft or minimum wage violations. Whether the required wage is $9 an hour or $15 an hour makes little difference when employers are free to pay workers less, or even nothing, for their contributions. Workers at the lowest wage levels have little recourse when employers violate their rights.
A multi-layer problem
The first issue involves the enforcement of existing laws. According to POLITICO, six states have no officials on staff to investigate reports of wage violations. More than half of U.S. states employ fewer than 10 investigators. Workers in these states have little hope that their reports of wage theft will be acted on in a timely or untimely manner.
The problem goes deeper, however. If a worker is successful in getting the state to order their stolen wages returned, there is no one to follow up and make sure the employer makes good. Surveys indicated that more than 40 percent of wages businesses were ordered to pay back were not actually recovered. This is the result of years of neglect for workers’ rights. Employers have learned easy ways to evade the law and cheat their workers.
Legislators need to ask themselves, if the minimum wage is not upheld in a meaningful way, what does it matter if the wage is fair?