Low-Wage Work Can Be Nasty, Brutish, Ignored

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Thousands of workers in New York City – from payroll staff in high-end restaurants to undocumented immigrants helping to build new housing – aren’t earning minimum wage or overtime pay, a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice has found.

In addition to minimum wage and overtime violations – researchers found the latter so common in most of the restaurant industry as to render overtime pay “purely optional” – researchers identified a string of other common violations. In interviews with 326 workers, employers, agency officials and advocates conducted between 2003 and 2006, researchers found consistent problems ranging from slippery floors and unpaid meal breaks to outright human trafficking.

Although globalization is a huge factor in many workplace trends, it’s not a major driver here, said Annette Bernhardt, an author of the report and co-director of the Brennan Center’s Economic Justice Project. Indeed, the city’s low-wage occupations are by and large concentrated in the service sector, which typically requires workers to perform their duties on-site; the only exception was manufacturing jobs.

Causes for the trend vary by industry, Bernhardt said. Researchers tied labor problems in home health care and child care, for example, to the fact that most are paid through public funds such as Medicaid, tying their low wages to diminishing public funds for such services. However, in security, janitorial and laundry work, few of the businesses using their services pay workers directly, instead going through a web of contractors and subcontractors, making it difficult to trace responsibility for wages, said the report.

“This is certainly not a New York-specific phenomenon,” said Bruce Herman, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a national advocacy group for low-wage workers. “The report highlights some specific industries…but this is throughout the country.”

At the same time, labor law enforcement has plummeted, according to the report’s analysis of federal labor department data. Even as the number of American workers covered by labor law increased by 55 percent from 1975 to 2004, the same period saw a 14 percent reduction in investigations staff and a 36 percent drop in completed compliance actions. The New York state labor department employed about 100 investigators for the half-million workplaces in the state during the study.

While the report’s authors are optimistic that enforcement will step up under Governor Spitzer – as Attorney General, his office investigated several cases on behalf of low-wage workers – Bernhardt named another culprit that’s harder to pin down: A radically changed economy. ”It’s not just, ‘Let’s do more enforcement,’ but ‘the laws are outdated.’ They are based on an employment model from the last century,” she said. “You put those two things together, and what you get is employers breaking the law.”

That’s not just bad news for the workers stuck in those jobs, said Herman. “Bad business practices get rooted in some of these low-wage sectors,” he said. “And you see them spreading to other industries if they’re allowed to persist.”

– Tracie McMillan