Book by Chicago workers advocate explores wage theft

  • By Claire Bushey
  • Staff Writer
  • January 09, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

The Koran says to pay a worker before the sweat on his brow dries.
A verse in the Hebrew Scriptures says employers must pay their workers before sundown, lest a worker “cry to the Lord against you, and you will be held guilty.”
And of course, there’s always the classic: “Thou shalt not steal.”
There’s nothing subtle about these admonitions, says Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects organized labor and the religious left.

Bobo knows her chapter and verse; her family attended an evangelical church three times a week while she was growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She majored in religion at Barnard College and leads the choir at her church in Rogers Park.
Yet employers across the country are failing to heed both higher authority and federal law, as Bobo documents in her new book, “Wage Theft in America.” Millions of workers are denied overtime pay, paid less than minimum wage or not  paid at all.
In 1997 there were 1,633 lawsuits filed in federal court alleging violation to the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 2007 there were more than 7,300 such cases. The list of companies that have paid settlements for wage theft includes Wal-Mart, Computech, T-Mobile, Humana and hundreds more.
“People need money to live on,” Bobo says. “When people are scratching to make ends meet, they ought to have that $2,000 (they’re owed).”
Bobo founded Interfaith in 1996. It was a natural outgrowth of her faith life, which since college had arced toward social justice issues. In the 1980s she worked as an organizer for Bread for the World, an ecumenical anti-hunger organization.

Kim Bobo / By Justin Goh

She moved to the Midwest Academy, a Chicago training school for union organizers, and began trying to connect religious leaders with the labor movement. Religious denominations were often on the front lines fighting against housing problems and hunger, but they weren’t addressing what was arguably the root problem: that people’s jobs didn’t pay enough to cover shelter and food.
In 1989 during the United Mine Workers strike in Pittston, Pa., she built a religious support network from nothing. Labor leaders were impressed, even though she felt she’d just done fairly basic religious organizing.
She continued religious organizing in Chicago and eventually founded Interfaith. Since then it has become the largest, most influential alliance between the two groups since the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists wielded power in the 1930s and ‘40s, according to Georgetown University associate professor Joseph McCartin.

Interfaith’s local arm, the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, operates one of the approximately 200 worker centers found throughout the country, where staff help cheated workers understand their rights and organize to improve their situation.
A decade ago center staff began getting calls from workers who were owed money by their employers. As more worker centers were established, it became clear that wage theft was the No. 1 problem for their clients. Bobo took a sabbatical in the spring to write “Wage Theft,” and it was published in November, in time to get the issue on the Obama administration’s agenda, she hopes.
Wage theft can take multiple forms. Among the most common are denial of overtime, paying less than minimum wage, denying tips to restaurant workers and classifying employees as independent contractors when they’re actually employees. This last allows employers to dodge paying payroll taxes and workers compensation.
Fixing the problem wouldn’t be hard, Bobo says. The Department of Labor needs to receive resources so it can enforce existing law. More staff would mean the department could do spot checks of industries where wage theft is rampant, like in restaurants. As it is, the department barely can keep up with the complaints coming in.
“There’s 750 enforcement staff for the entire country to protect 130 million workers,” she says. “They’re doing triage.”
When complaints are investigated, workers typically only get half their back wages, and employers are seldom fined, so there’s no incentive not to steal, Bobo says.
Labor and workers’ rights advocates hope for improvement under Obama’s administration and have been cheered by his pick of the union-friendly Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., for Secretary of Labor. But no one knows how much political capital the president-elect is willing to spend on labor issues, Bobo says.
Bobo will discuss her book at 7:30 p.m. today at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St.


Staff Writer Claire Bushey covers unions and labor issues for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 14.