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Consenting to theft in the workplace

The term "unpaid wages" may conjure up images of a small clerical error on a company's vast accounting records. A better term for the issue is wage theft. Wages don't disappear. Companies steal them from the employees who are their rightful owners. Wage theft is a massive problem, partly because so many employers are confident they can get away with it.

How it works

It is not unheard of for employers to simply refuse to pay their workers for the hours both sides agree were put in. It is not the only form of wage theft, however. Wage theft also happens when workers are asked to work after they have clocked out. In some cases, workers are required to complete work functions on their own time. These workers receive paychecks, but those paychecks do not reflect the full contributions of the worker.

A recent case in California illustrates one of the difficulties in combating wage theft. The case began in 2012 over allegations that workers were being asked to work after they had clocked out for the day. Each time this would happen, the workers would lose out on a few minutes' pay. The first court to hear the case granted summary judgement to Starbucks because the amounts involved were "trivial" in their view. While the money was certainly trivial to Starbucks, it was not trivial to the workers. The fact that Starbucks has so much makes the willingness to steal from workers more egregious, not less.

Eventually, higher courts overturned the decision, granting workers the right to keep their wages, no matter how minimal the thievery of their employers. While that ruling is specific to wage theft cases in California, it will hopefully open the eyes of workers everywhere to this despicable practice.

Every worker deserves to be paid for the labor they perform. When employers do not pay the full wages they owe, it is not a clerical error or a misunderstanding. It is theft. The employers who steal from their employees should be held accountable for their misdeeds.

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