Oregon Lawmakers Weigh Boosting Protections Against Wage Theft

Feb 2, 2016

Normally, if you do a job, you expect to be properly paid for it. But many workers aren’t given the compensation they’re legally due. One study estimated more than a quarter of low-wage workers were paid less than the legal minimum wage. Another found nearly 90 percent of fast food employees weren’t paid what they were entitled to.

Now, workers’ advocates and Democratic lawmakers in Oregon are pushing to crack down on what they call wage theft.

Portland sheet metal worker Darrin Boyce says he’s personally experienced wage theft more than once. He recently told a Senate committee about working overtime, then – come payday -- finding his paycheck short.

“So when I went and addressed it with the owner,” he said, "he literally had another time card filled out – one that I did not fill out – and my paycheck was short several hundred dollars.”

Boyce told lawmakers he had another boss who required him to fill out his time card in pencil, which allowed it to be altered after he turned it in.

Other workers at the hearing told stories of not being paid for all the hours they worked, of not getting pay stubs, of employers destroying work records. Boyce says cheating employers too often get off with a slap on the wrist..

“If I was to steal from my employer and convicted, I’d be looking at some time, more than likely. So I don’t understand why the coin shouldn’t be flipped the other way.”

Paloma Sparks says the vast majority of employers are law-abiding and pay their workers what they’re due. Then there are the others …

“We’re talking about the worst of the worst,” she said. “We’re talking about employers that base their business on the idea that workers’ wages is where they can cut corners.”

Sparks is with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, commonly known by its acronym, BOLI. The agency enforces labor and anti-discrimination laws in Oregon. Sparks says it’s a slow, cumbersome process. BOLI does its best with the resources it’s given, she says …

“But the Bureau has seven investigators to investigate all wage and hour claims for the entire state of Oregon.”

In the most recent two-year budget period, BOLI received nearly 3,000 claims from workers who said they hadn’t been properly paid. Almost 4,000 more filed complaints about other wage and hour violations, such as not getting meal and rest breaks, receiving inaccurate pay stubs or getting no accounting of their hours and wages at all. During that period, the agency collected about $2.5 million in back wages for workers.

Senator Michael Dembrow and top Senate Democrats are sponsoring a bill that would toughen requirements for employers, give the state expanded powers to enforce wage laws and make it easier for workers to file lawsuits to collect wages.

Betsy Earls, with Associated Oregon Industries, said her group agrees workers shouldn’t be cheated out of their wages.

“But the bill, as it’s written right now, doesn’t make that situation any less likely,” she said. “It creates really a significant private burden on a vast majority of employers without any clear public benefit.”

Drew Hagedorn, with Associated General Contractors, told the Senate hearing that while his group’s members agree deliberately ripping off employees is wrong …

“We’re concerned that scriveners’ errors or real legitimate mistakes – not intentional acts – could be swept in under this regime.”

Industry opposition killed a similar proposal last year, and Senate Republicans recently included the new bill among what they labeled the Democrat’s “Dirty Dozen” bills meant to advance “a partisan, polarizing agenda backed by special interests.”

Bill sponsor Senator Dembrow says fighting wage theft is a tricky balancing act because shady employers are always coming up with new cons.

“Wage theft is like Whack-A-Mole. You think you’ve dealt with it and then it crops up in another way.”

Dembrow says he’s hopeful a compromise that would fund more enforcement investigators at BOLI will garner the Republican support he needs. He’s got just a few weeks during this short legislative session to do that.