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Labor advocates fight wage theft in Cleveland

The Northeast Ohio Worker Center and Young Latino Network partner to host wage theft clinics, with the aim of educating and empowering the region’s work force.

Do you remember the day you got your first paycheck? Fans of the NBC sitcom “Friends” may remember the first episode in which Rachel Green, played by Jennifier Aniston, exclaimed “who’s FICA, why is he getting all my money?” after receiving her first paycheck from Central Perk Coffee.

Many of us have felt short-changed at one time or another for the blood, sweat and tears we pour into our respective jobs or careers.  Sometimes, a paycheck dollar figure just doesn’t seem right. While certain deductions are perfectly legal and necessary – such as FICA, a US federal payroll deduction – other times, discrepancies in pay may be an indication of a pervasive and often overlooked problem: wage theft. 

This can happen, intentionally or unintentionally, when employers fail to pay workers the full amount of wages and benefits to which an employee is entitled for their labor. 

Wage theft comes in many different forms – and intentional or not, it is always illegal. Common examples include unpaid overtime, not being paid for all hours worked, being forced to work “off-the-clock,” and being misclassified as exempt vs. nonexempt – or as an independent contractor as opposed to an employee. 

Exempt employees are usually people with higher-level positions, such as executives and administrative professionals, that are paid a fixed salary and are exempt from (or not subject to) certain labor related provisions as set forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

Non-Exempt employees are typically paid an hourly wage and are eligible for overtime pay. The FLSA is a federal law, first enacted by Congress in 1938, which requires employers to pay a minimum wage and provide overtime pay, or at least time and a half to employees working over 40 hours in a week. The FLSA also puts protections in place against child labor. 

Independent contractors usually receive a Form 1099 at the end of the year from the company or person they’ve been paid by. Workers classified as employees receive a Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement from their employer(s). There are many nuances between the two classifications, such as autonomy over work performance, how often one is paid, scheduling and supervision and whether taxes are withheld from paychecks. Misclassification of employees can have legal and financial consequences, such as a loss of benefits and protections for workers, or fines and penalties for employers.

The US Department of Labor offers a “Handy Reference Guide to the Fair Labor Standards Act,” to provide information and guidance on adhering to the law in the often intricate relationship between employer and employee. Like any other law however, there are exceptions, and it has evolved over time to meet the ever-changing demands of modern society. Many states have since enacted their own set of rules and regulations concerning labor – and the myriad variables to achieving compliance with these laws can be confusing.

The complexities of navigating the workplace’s regulatory environment can leave the most vulnerable workers open to exploitation, including tipped workers, the non-unionized, immigrants and those in low-wage fields. However, while wage theft disproportionately affects marginalized communities, it is a prevalent issue across all demographics and sectors of the economy. The cost of wage theft is 100x greater than that of all robberies in the United States combined. Billions of dollars are stolen each year from workers’ paychecks by their employers. 

To combat the exploitation of workers and the broader societal effects of wage theft, such as unfair competition and increased poverty, community-based organizations known as worker centers have sprouted up across the country to educate workers on their rights and help them advocate for themselves and their co-workers. 

Standing up for workers

The Northeast Ohio Worker Center (NEOWC) was established locally in 2019, with the mission of representing the region’s working-class population and organizing to build labor power in local communities.

“Worker centers exist to fill and occupy the massive space between the organized labor movement, like unions, and workers that don’t see themselves as part of that movement,” said Andy Schumann, NEOWC’s community outreach manager. “About 90% of workers will never be in a unionized workplace, and that is our specialty: getting out to the workers who don’t know what their rights are in the workplace and don’t have anybody helping them recognize what their rights are, and getting them connected with legal services if necessary and navigating different agencies.” 

NEOWC does not have the same constraints found within government agencies, such as limitations on the kinds of services they can provide or recommend. The team at the worker center possesses “an understanding of what each agency specializes in, so we can make a more accurate recommendation than what somebody working alone could potentially figure out on their own,” said Schumann. 

“We are not lawyers, but we can equip workers with the tools needed to create the changes that they want to see,” he added. 

NEOWC can make referrals for private attorneys and assist with filing small claims cases for unpaid wages up to $6,000, depending on the jurisdiction. Knowledge is the most useful tool in the NEOWC toolbox, according to Schumann.

“As long as workers have the education, they can empower themselves to move forward,” said Schumann. “The worker center provides workers with the context, the history and the knowledge to support worker’s agency. We believe that the worker knows what is right for them, and we believe that workers should be able to talk openly about issues at work and should be able to figure out how to problem solve together with their coworkers.” 

Another useful tool for workers seeking change in their workplace is called protected concerted activity. This occurs when two or more workers come together about a concern in the workplace. 

“This could be about pay, heat in the building, a troublesome customer – it could literally be about anything, any sort of work concern is fair game. If two or more employees at a workplace approach their supervisor about this, it is called protected concerted activity,” said Schumann. “Protected concerted activity is one of the only ways workers can protect themselves from being fired, because Ohio is an at-will-employment state.” 

There is also a fundamental right to protection from discrimination. Employers cannot treat workers differently based on their age, race, gender identity or expression, sexuality, pregnancy, disability, religion, or national origin. 

“Something that is pretty cool about labor rights,” said Schumann, is that “all workers are granted these protections, regardless of immigration status. Undocumented people do have the same rights at work as documented people.” 

Undocumented workers can report labor violations without fearing immigration consequences and can be protected from deportation through deferred action. 

NEOWC has partnered with the Young Latino Network to provide bilingual wage theft clinics. The clinics are being held the fourth Wednesday of each month at the Young Latino Network’s office, on the third floor of Lin Omni Square at 3167 Fulton Road, Suite 305 in Cleveland from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The office is accessible via RTA Route 45 or 25. 

The Worker Center can be reached anytime, via call or text at 216-302-4622, or through an online form at Virtual appointments are available, and all information shared with the Worker Center is strictly confidential. 

Most of the job of labor advocacy boils down to being a good listener and getting to know each worker’s individual needs, said Schumann.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Try to not act out of fear. You do have the legal right to talk about what you want to see differently in your workplace. If you need any help navigating your options, you can always talk to the Worker Center. A lot of the labor rights we have today only exist because we – the working class – stood up for ourselves!”