DC Council Should Strengthen Efforts to Prevent Wage Theft

While DC’s protections against wage theft are among the strongest in the country, the problem of workers not getting paid all that is owed to them—or not getting paid at all—is still a major problem in the District, and our law could be strengthened. This was the subject of a DC City Council hearing on Wednesday.

DC has passed several laws in recent years to improve workers’ rights, such as expanding access to paid sick leave, increasing the minimum wage, and adopting the original wage theft law. But these new workplace rights and benefits are only beneficial to workers if their employers comply.

The issue of wage theft in the District—which can take many forms, including not paying promised wages, not paying for the full number of hours worked, not paying overtime, or not providing sick and safe leave—is great, and growing. In 2015, the Department of Employment Services (DOES) received a total of 699 wage theft complaints, with a total of over $21 million in compensation at stake.[i]

At the hearing, several workers told powerful stories about struggling to make ends meet and provide for their families, while their employer refused to pay them their entitled wages, sometimes for months on end.

As stronger labor laws continue to be enacted in the District, the potential for even more wage theft claims rises. For example, after the enactment of the Wage Theft Prevention Act, DOES’ Office of Wage-Hour experienced a 27 percent increase in claims from workers who were not getting paid the minimum wage, and an astounding 182 percent increase in workers submitting claims for not getting paid the living wage cases. Overall, the department projected a 23 percent increase in claims for FY 2016 over the previous year.[ii]

Recent legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 will mean a wage increase for 114,000 DC workers by 2020, or 14 percent of the city’s workforce.[iii] While this will be tremendously beneficial to District residents at the bottom of the wage scale, they can only enjoy this benefit if the new minimum wage law is properly enforced.

Most of the provisions of the Overtime Fairness and Wage Theft Prevention Clarification Act are technical corrections to the original wage theft law and have already been passed on an emergency basis. This bill would simply make those provisions permanent, and also add some additional clarifying amendments. For example, the legislation clarifies that the procedures and remedies available for violations of the minimum wage law are the same as those for unpaid wages, and also clarifies when smaller awards may be given because the employer shows a “good faith” mistake. The bill also ends the exemption for overtime pay for parking lot attendants, which will give these workers the same local processes and remedies that all other workers have to receive what they are rightfully owed.

Overall, the legislation will serve to make our wage theft law clearer, and therefore stronger. We urge the City Council to quickly adopt its passage.

[i] DOES FY 2015-2016 Performance Oversight Hearing Questions. http://dccouncil.us/files/user_uploads/budget_responses/DOESFY1516PRQAFinal3.pdf

[ii] DOES FY 2015-2016 Performance Oversight Hearing Questions. http://dccouncil.us/files/user_uploads/budget_responses/DOESFY1516PRQAFinal3.pdf

[iii] David Cooper. 2016. “Raising the DC Minimum Wage to $15 by 2020 would Lift Wages for 114,000 Working People.” Economic Policy Institute.