Oregon’s ‘incredible’ crackdown on wage theft

Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbor’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work.” — Book of Jeremiah, 22:13, King James Version

By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor

In the short session that ended March 3, the Oregon Legislature passed a law that will make wage thieves tremble. When employers fail to pay minimum wage or overtime, workers will be able to sue for triple damages. Construction contractors that cheat on prevailing wage laws will be barred from bidding on public works projects for 20 years. Lawmakers — alarmed by expert testimony that the problem is growing — also quadrupled the wage-and-hour enforcement budget of the state Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), and even approved a budget note asking the state attorney general to create a special unit devoted to prosecuting wage thieves.

April fools! Actually, Oregon lawmakers did none of those things. But they could one day, if they ever wake up to the scale of the problem.

The triple damages proposal is part of a real piece of legislation introduced March 16  by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)  Known as the “Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act,” the bill would also: require employers to provide regular pay stubs; give workers the right to inspect their employer’s payroll records for them; and allow class action suits in cases where employers systematically defraud workers. The Senate bill has 10 cosponsors, including Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The House version has 32 cosponsors. But as long as Republicans remain in charge of Congress, the bill is considered to have zero chance of passage.

Has WAGE THEFT happened to you?

Have you or someone you know been cheated out of wages or overtime, not given meal and rest breaks, told to work before or after punching out, or told by an employer that you’re an “independent contractor” when that was news to you? If so, you may be a victim of wage theft. If it took place in Oregon, you should call the Bureau of Labor and Industries at 971-673-0761 — but only if it happened in the last year. Either way, let us know too — the NW Labor Press is looking for examples. Call us at 503-288-3311.

In Oregon, the Democrats are in charge. They took at least a bite at the problem this year, cobbling together some of the least controversial parts of a bill that failed to win passage last year. SB 1587 passed 21-7 in the Senate, and the Oregon House had only one “no” vote (Tualatin Republican Julie Parrish). SB 1587 is still awaiting Gov. Kate Brown’s signature to become law. Like Patty Murray’s bill in Congress, SB 1587 requires employers to provide pay stubs to workers — spell-ing out pay rates and hours worked, and itemizing payroll deductions. It also requires employers to keep payroll records for three years. It gives BOLI three more wage and hour investigators (bringing the total to 10, to enforce the law for all Oregon workers.) And it makes it a Class C felony — punishable by up to five years in prison, a $125,000 fine, or both — for a contractor to knowingly violate the state’s prevailing wage law. [Look to future issues of the NW Labor Press for news about those prosecutions.]

But no one thinks those measures will stamp out the problem of wage theft.

State Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) — SB 1587’s sponsor — said lawmakers will have to become much more aware of the problem before significant action is taken.

That action may start in the House Business and Labor Committee, chaired by State Rep. Paul Holvey. Holvey knows about wage theft first-hand: He’s a Eugene-area union rep for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and construction is one of the industries where wage theft is most common.

“[BOLI] is underfunded,” Holvey said, “and doesn’t have the resources they need to do a thorough job of compliance.”

Holvey said he expects to try again to get a more significant bill passed in 2017, and will hold a hearing on the issue in May or September of 2016.

One possible approach would be to make it easier for workers to get an attorney to enforce the law.

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