Workers are increasingly concerned about wage theft and other forms of labor exploitation during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the state Department of Labor and Industry.
The agency’s Labor Standards Division received 3,807 calls in March and April, compared to an average of 2,460 every two months for the year prior, a 55% increase that is remarkable given how many people were out of work.
The agency also received 1,360 emails during the first two months of the pandemic, compared to an average of 650 every two months for the year prior, according to agency spokesman James Honerman. Labor and Industry has initiated six investigations of wage theft so far, all coronavirus related, Honerman said.
Brian Walsh, attorney with Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, says the department has had a roughly 200 percent increase in calls and emails coming from both employers and workers.
Advocates for workers say the pandemic and the economic crisis that came with it have created conditions ripe for exploitation of workers, and they predict the abuses will rise as more economic activity is allowed.
“I think we’ve yet to really understand what the pandemic has meant for wage theft, but we suspect that the rampant level of wage theft that we’ve seen for years is not going to end or diminish in any way with a pandemic. And if anything, it’s going to get worse,” Laura Huizar, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, told the Reformer.
Huizar warns that as businesses owners face their own challenges, they may be more tempted to skimp workers’ pay.
At the same time, workers who know their jobs could vanish will be afraid to complain about wage theft or other abuses, Walsh said.
The working conditions created by the pandemic also make it harder for workers to organize to meet the threat of wage theft. So in some cases they are taking their complaints public.
At the corner at Lake and Irving in Uptown Minneapolis last week, former workers of restaurateur Kim Bartmann gathered outside Barbette — a French bistro she owns — to demand back pay and legal penalties they say she owes them.
Demonstrators were spaced out for safety but held signs saying “Local Organic Wage Theft,” a cheeky comment on Bartmann’s restaurant ethics. Like Martin Luther, they posted their demands to the door.
Allison Hartman worked as a line and prep cook at several Bartmann Group restaurants, including Red Stag, The Bird and Pat’s Tap. She was working at another one of Bartmann’s estalbishments — Gigi’s Cafe — the week of March 16 when she found out she was being let go without her final wages, she told the Reformer.
“I had bills to pay. I had student loans to pay off. I have utilities that I need to repay. I was moving out of an apartment, so there’s obvious expenses with that,” she said. “And so that was really, really stressful for me. And I also didn’t know if I qualified for unemployment, so I had no idea how I would be able to sustain myself.”
Hartman says she has since received her last paycheck, but organizers argue that she and other workers are still owed two weeks worth of wages under the state’s final paycheck statute. They point to a clause that says workers who are not paid their back wages within 24 hours of being let go are then owed additional pay equal to the amount of their daily earnings for each of up to 15 days that their employer fails to pay them.
And Hartman says that she — like many back-of-house restaurant workers — is still owed unpaid overtime going back more than a year. Bartmann did not respond to an interview request from the Reformer. The Star Tribune recently reported that in e-mails to employees, she said she was seeking investors and applying for government loans, and that she eventually found outside money to cover payroll.
At the protest, Bartmann’s former employees also demanded that the restaurants be restructured to a cooperative ownership model.
Huizar, the workers’ rights attorney, points to a silver lining in the current crisis: While workers may be more reluctant to step forward, when they do, more people seem willing to pay attention.
Frontline workers called “essential ” — nurses, Amazon warehouse laborers, or meat processors and delivery drivers — have pleaded their case with a life and death urgency to a mask-wearing public.
“Right now, I think we are recognizing how essential so many workers are to our day-to-day lives, and that is empowering and helping workers see value and opportunity in coming together and demanding better,” she said.
And as workers feel more empowered, they are demanding more than just the money they are owed, but also a greater say in how their work is done.
“A lot of the organizing that we’re seeing is not just focused on wage theft and enforcement of laws that are on the books, but on demanding and crafting a vision for what could be better,” Huizar said. “We hope to see a lot more of that, and we hope that it yields real results and real change.”