Exclusive Commentary

Fair Wages Mean Justice for All, By Representative Lisa Hernandez and Representative Mark Beaubien, Illinois General Assembly

- Posted September 22, 2010

A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is not a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike can agree that if you work hard and play by the rules, you deserve to be paid.  But the shocking reality is that the many low-wage earners fall prey to a variety of employer tricks, such as minimum wage and overtime violations, and just plain non-payment of owed wages. 


This problem, known as wage-theft, often hits low-wage workers the hardest, even though these people are the ones least able to take the financial hit. 


The good news is that Governor Quinn of Illinois has just signed into law a bipartisan bill we both sponsored that will help make wage-theft in Illinois a problem of the past.


Wage-theft is a real problem for Illinois.  In Chicago alone, there are approximately 146,300 workers in the city and across Cook County who experience at least one paybased violation in any given week. Given this figure, workers in low-wage industries in Chicago stand to lose $7.3 million per week because of employment and labor law violations.


These hardworking residents have suffered from multiple scams. Twenty six percent of Chicago workers surveyed received less than minimum wage, and for those who worked more than 40 hours per week, two out of three were not paid overtime.


This is a national problem, too. One study of low-wage workers found that 68 percent lost an average of $2,634 annually, totaling 15 percent of yearly earnings.


Wage-theft is especially hard on low-wage workers.  They spend a higher percentage of their income on necessities and usually have less money to pay attorney’s fees if they have to file a wage claim.  This is money that, in the hands of low-income families, would go right into the economy to buy basic goods like food and clothing. 


The wage-theft epidemic affects not only workers who are not paid their earned wages, but also all Illinois taxpayers who have to make up the millions in unpaid payroll taxes.  Filling in this gap puts Illinois businesses that follow the law at an unfair disadvantage when competing with employers who are happy to flout the rules.


Despite the gravity of the problem, the truth is that we had not previously given our state Department of Labor the necessary tools to adequately enforce the law.


The Illinois Department of Labor has been operating with expensive, inefficient, and redundant processes that have hindered its ability to help infringed-upon workers recover their stolen wages.  There are already an average of 10,000 claims per year, many of which can take months or even years to process. And it has been unable to effectively seek out and punish abusive employers who withhold earned wages or illegally retaliate against workers’ claims as its findings have carried no legal weight.


That’s why we commend the Just Pay For All Coalition’s efforts in bringing this issue forward and in mobilizing the Illinois legislature to draft amendments to Illinois’ Wage Payment and Collection Act to fix these problems.


Now that the governor has signed our bill into law, the dream of a fair Illinois pay system for all workers is finally a reality.


These new amendments, which go into effect on January 1, will give the Department of Labor the tools it needs to effectively, efficiently, and fairly enforce the law and will serve to deter wage thieves by increasing civil and criminal penalties, especially for repeat violators. The law creates a new small claims division of the IDOL so it can directly oversee claims of workers with unpaid wages of $3,000 or less. Repeat violations will now be prosecuted as felonies rather than misdemeanors and employers found guilty of wage theft must pay their workers from the date of nonpayment, with interest, as well as a $250 administrative fine.


And there is a provision that will protect workers from experiencing retaliation from their employers when they file unpaid wage claims, enabling them to recover the costs of attorney fees so they can retain legal counsel for these claims.


We also respect that business organizations such as the Illinois Manufacturing Association, Illinois Merchant’s Association, and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce did not oppose this bill.  They understand that fair wages are a win for everyone.  They are good for workers, good for businesses, and good for the state economy.


The passage of this law is a resounding victory for all workers in Illinois.  But it will also ensure that the most vulnerable low-income workers never have to worry about skipping a meal or wearing worn out clothes because their employers choose not to follow the law.


Now it’s time for the rest of the country to follow our lead and ensure fair opportunity for all.


Representative Elizabeth Hernandez represents the 24th district in the Illinois General Assembly.


Representative Mark H. Beaubien, Jr. represents the 52nd district in the Illinois General Assembly.