What is wage theft?

On Behalf of | Feb 26, 2024 | Employment Law

The term “wage theft” covers a wide range of behaviors in which employers fail to pay employees what they are owed.

In some instances, this can be blatant, as when an employer simply refuses to pay their workers, or pays them with checks that bounce. In other cases, it can be quite subtle and hard to detect. In some cases, employers do it deliberately, but they can also do it unintentionally.

A report by the Economic Policy Institute found that between 2017 and 2020, American workers recovered $3 billion in unpaid wages by taking legal action. However, the EPI noted that most wage theft goes unreported, and so the actual dollar amount of stolen wages is undoubtedly much, much higher.

Examples of hard-to-spot wage theft

It’s easy to understand some instances of wage theft. For instance, an unscrupulous employer might simply fail to pay workers or pay them with checks that bounce. This happens all too often to day laborers and others in temporary positions.

But there are also examples that the workers themselves might not recognize as theft. These can include meal times or other breaks that a worker earned but was not allowed to use. For instance, if an employee clocks out for a lunch break, but then is forced to work through the break, they may not be paid for the work they performed during the break.

Some examples are even more subtle. For instance, employers may not reimburse their employees for expenses, such as the cost of a uniform.

In some cases, the dollar amounts may be minor, but they can add up over time. For instance, many employees are misclassified into job categories that make them exempt from overtime rules or benefits, and so they end up being denied the full compensation to which they are entitled under the law.

Wisconsin law

Under Wisconsin law, workers can file a claim with the Department of Workforce Development if they have not been paid, or if they have had a dispute with their employers over owed wages. Those who are considering their first steps should contact an attorney at Alan C. Olson & Associates with experience in wage and hour laws.


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