A newly expanded division of the Office of Workforce Development (OWD) will be tackling wage theft – an employer’s unlawful failure to pay workers the wages they are due.

The OWD’s Wage Theft & Living Wage Division, an expansion of the former Living Wage Division, aims to both educate workers about their rights to fair wages and leverage the authority of the Boston Licensing Board to get negligent employers to pay their employees lawfully. The division will notify the board of any wage complaints lodged against an employer licensed or seeking a license in those industries overseen by the board: food service, alcohol service, lodging, billiards halls, bowling alleys, and fortune telling. The Licensing Board will then determine if the complaint warrants a hearing and any disciplinary action.

wage theft poster
An image from a poster distributed through the Wage Theft & Living Wage Division’s public outreach campaign vivifies the crime of wage theft.

“Our hope is that the prospect of unwanted publicity and/or loss of a license will motivate unscrupulous employers to restore any wages due their employees,” said Brian Norton, the OWD’s deputy director of labor policy. “Of course, the court system remains the primary legal avenue for combating wage theft. But this collaboration with the Licensing Board offers victims a potentially quicker, nimbler solution to getting their stolen wages back.”

The creation of the OWD’s Wage Theft & Living Wage Division was initiated by Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s announcement last fall that the OWD would collaborate with the Boston Licensing Board to ensure all licensees were properly paying employees. The mayor had previously issued an executive order requiring payment certification from all vendors with city contracts.

“It’s illegal to deny fairly earned wages, and we must do more to protect our workers from this practice,” Mayor Walsh said as part of the fall announcement.

Indeed, wage theft is a rampant white collar crime that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of the workforce. A 2008 study found that two-thirds of low-wage workers surveyed had suffered wage theft. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that more than $50 billion is stolen from workers’ paychecks each year – more than three times the losses from all other annual robberies combined.

In Boston alone, a 2012 U.S Department of Labor investigation found that 34 area restaurants owed nearly $1.3 million in back pay to almost 500 employees.

The Wage Theft & Living Wage Division is currently launching a public education campaign that includes posters hung in spaces occupied by labor unions, immigrant associations, community centers, and other non-profit partners, as well as a a new webpage where workers can file wage theft complaints. The campaign emphasizes that immigration status has no bearing on workers’ rights to claim their fair wages.

In addition to its direct appeals to the public, the Wage Theft & Living Wage Division will also be following up on those wage theft complaints filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office in industries that fall under the purview of the Boston Licensing Board.

Norton hopes to expand the division’s reach beyond those industries and into other fields.

“Construction is especially notorious for wage theft,” said Norton, who is also a long-time member of the laborers’ union. “The juxtaposition of cash payments and short-term independent contractors creates fertile ground for unsavory business practices. Mayor Walsh’s executive order was designed to ensure all workers in the city of Boston are protected from wage theft regardless of race, gender, or immigration status. The Mayor’s office of workforce development is exploring any, and all, avenues in which we can be of assistance to victimized workers.”

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