Analysis Violence

Pennsylvania Child Sexual Abuse Case Highlights Need for Statute of Limitations Reform (Updated)

Tara Murtha

The accidental overdose of a 26-year-old man who accused a former Philadelphia priest of raping him as a child underscores Pennsylvania's battle over the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse.

UPDATE, October 23, 4:10 p.m.: On Wednesday, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced that his office cannot move forward with the prosecution against Father Brennan given the recent unexpected death of the 26-year-old man reported on below. According to the local NBC affiliate:

“The district attorney said he dropped rape and sexual assault charges levied against the 75-year-old priest because there was no longer enough evidence—direct or circumstantial—to continue a trial. ‘In many cases of sexual assault whether they be victims or adults or children, really the testimony of that victim is paramount to getting a conviction,’ he said.”

A 26-year-old man who, along with a number of other individuals, accused Father Robert L. Brennan of raping him as a child died of an accidental drug overdose last week. Now, the chance to finally put Father Brennan behind bars may have died along with him, despite a paper trail of abuse accusations stretching back 25 years.

The 26-year-old told authorities that the abuse lasted for three years, beginning when he was an 11-year-old altar boy and Brennan, then 60, was assistant pastor at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in Northeast Philadelphia. All told, more than 20 boys from at least four Philadelphia parishes have filed complaints about Brennan, now 75, according to the second of three grand jury reports investigating the Philadelphia archdiocese. However, the 26-year-old’s allegations were the first to lead to legal charges, thanks to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse. (In Pennsylvania, victims have until age 50 to open a criminal prosecution and age 30 to file a civil suit.)

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In September, Brennan was arrested in his Maryland home and charged with rape, involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, and aggravated sexual assault.

But Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who publicly identifies as Catholic, said his office is reviewing whether the prosecution will continue. “The decades-long demons and scars the victim in this case endured ended this weekend,” Williams told the local CBS affiliate.

Research has long linked the trauma of childhood sexual abuse with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

A Brief History of Father Brennan

When the first grand jury was impaneled in Philadelphia to investigate rape in the Catholic Church in 2001, they expected to review “a small number of isolated incidents that occurred decades ago.” Instead, they uncovered evidence that “over the past 35 years more than 120 priests serving the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had been accused of sexually abusing hundreds of” children, and that with “rare exceptions” the archdiocese didn’t contact authorities. According to the grand jury:

Child molesters purposefully select the most defenseless children. They should not be rewarded for their deliberate selection of vulnerable victims by a statute of limitations that, given the severity of the harm they inflict … makes it very unlikely their crimes will be timely reported.

The grand jury discovered so much evidence that they exceeded the two-year sitting limit, and had to fold their findings into a 2005 bombshell report, which singled out Father Brennan as one of several case studies of priests with long histories of suspect behavior.

Cardinal Bevilacqua (then archbishop of the Philadelphia archdiocese) assigned Brennan to St. Ignatius parish in suburban Philadelphia in 1988. According to records, the assistant pastor at St. Ignatius expressed concern over Brennan’s “actions with young boys and teenagers” since Brennan’s first day on the job.

The assistant pastor characterized Brennan’s interest in young boys, whom he reportedly often “forced” to sit on his lap, as “extreme”; he was even said to host sleepovers in the rectory.

When the mother of the first complainant, a 13-year-old boy, met with Brennan, he gave her an autographed photograph of himself, according to the report. When Brennan was sent to the archdiocese-owned hospital for a psychological evaluation, church officials lied to parishioners and told them their pastor was on retreat.

From the report:

Since that time, the Archdiocese has learned of inappropriate or suspicious behavior by Fr. Brennan with more than 20 boys from four different parishes. He was psychologically evaluated or “treated” four times. Depending on the level of scandal threatened by various incidents, Cardinal Bevilacqua either transferred Fr. Brennan to another parish with unsuspecting families or ignored the reports and left the priest in the parish with his current victims. The Cardinal’s managers advised Fr. Brennan to “keep a low profile,” but never restricted or supervised his access to the youth of his various parishes.

Cardinal Bevilacqua died last year, a day after a judge ruled him competent to testify in the trial of his one-time right-hand man, Monsignor William Lynn. Lynn was ultimately convicted of child endangerment, making him the first administrative church official found criminally liable for sexual abuse crimes committed by a priest.

The first grand jury was correct to worry that, combined with the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse, the church’s strategy of rotating priests and lying to parishioners would hamstring justice. Although the 2005 grand jury said they documented evidence of child sexual abuse by at least 63 priests, and have “no doubt” there are “many more,” not one priest faced legal charges.

“The biggest crime of all is this: it worked,” they wrote.

Shuffling abusive priests strategically exploits the way victims process trauma and frequently delay reporting, especially when the abuser is a trusted authority figure. In the largely working-class Catholic neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia in the 1980s, there was no bigger authority figure than a priest. The grand jury even noted a case wherein a boy who told his father about his younger brother’s abuse was beaten to the point of unconsciousness for telling “lies.”

Meanwhile, as the Philadelphia district attorney’s office has been investigating child sexual abuse and its subsequent cover-up by the archdiocese, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been lobbying state legislatures against reforming the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse.

The Fight Over Statute of Limitations Reform

Criminal and civil statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse vary state by state, but have generally been expanding, or liberalizing, since the explosion of the 2002 Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Boston.

Advocates of statute reform generally want to expand or abolish the time-frame wherein victims can file both criminal and civil complaints. In Pennsylvania, in the wake of child sexual abuse problems exposed in the church, at Pennsylvania State University, and in Boy Scout troops in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, advocates are focused on pushing for a bill that would establish what a “window”—a temporary period of time, usually one or two years, wherein victims can file civil complaints based on incidents that otherwise already timed out of the statute.

California passed a window bill in 2002. The resulting flood of lawsuits identified 300 perpetrators, which resulted in the church paying $1.2 billion in settlements. (Gov. Jerry Brown just vetoed a bill that would have implemented a second window, a decision applauded by the California Catholic Conference.)

Delaware, Minnesota, and Hawaii have implemented pieces of window legislation.

In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitation has been viciously fought over for years, but the Penn State and Philadelphia church sexual abuse scandals forced the issue into the forefront last year. State Rep. Louise Bishop (D-Philadelphia) helped bring even more attention to the issue by coming forward as a sponsor of a statute of limitations reform bill and, for the first time in her life, a survivor of child sexual abuse. Bishop, a minister and accomplished radio DJ, had been silent about her abuse for 66 years.

Still, after an elaborate and messy game of brinksmanship, the bills were once again left to die of neglect.

One of the main arguments the Catholic Conference has made against the window legislation is that over time, evidence is lost or can’t be found. But evidence has been found, again and again, and it’s the statute of limitation that prevents that evidence from seeing the light of day in the courthouse.

Optimistic About Reform

Advocates for survivors of child sexual assault in Pennsylvania have a fierce new ally in their corner: state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), who recently spoke out about his own abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest at a press conference in Harrisburg.

Rozzi says he didn’t start speaking out about his own abuse until four years ago, so he knows first-hand that often, by the time victims are ready to speak out, they have already timed out of civil litigation. In Rozzi’s case, he came forward after a friend who was allegedly abused by the same priest committed suicide.

“We just want to be given a chance to have our voices heard in a court of law and to expose the perpetrator,” Rozzi said in a September press conference. “I think the community has a right to know that these men and women are still out there.”

Rozzi announced that yet another Pennsylvania bill would be introduced to try and reform the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The legislation would raise the age wherein a victim can file a civil suit to 50 years old, establish a window for civil suits (window legislation is not possible for criminal complaints), and eliminate sovereign immunity, which means the law would apply to both public and private organizations.

For years, the problem has been that legislators against reform—namely state Reps. Ron Marsico (R-Lower Paxton) and Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks)—stonewall such bills by refusing to allow them to get to the floor for a vote.

Last year, lawmakers supporting statute of limitations reform had to resort to a rare parliamentary procedure to force the bills to the floor for a vote. But the fight ultimately led nowhere. Chad Schlanger, chief of staff for Rep. Rozzi, says reform-supporting lawmakers are prepared to use the same procedure—a discharge resolution—again if necessary. He also says the bill will pass if it makes it to the floor. “If Marsico, Caltagirone, and [Republican House Majority Leader Mike] Turzai would get this to the floor, this would pass,” Schlanger told Rewire. “I have lists of every single member.”

As the legislative fight continues to brew in Harrisburg, Marci Hamilton, co-counsel for the recently deceased 26-year-old, is hopeful that a survivor who falls within the current statute of limitations can continue the work started by her client. “I am confident there are survivors out there who will be able to carry on the legacy started by this brave young man,” said Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar and professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who has represented other alleged church sexual abuse victims and is one of the most outspoken advocates for abolishing the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse.

Hamilton speculates that her client’s fate may have been brighter had he not been forced to bear the burden of being the only person to press charges against Brennan. “Perhaps if many [individuals] had been able to come forward together, he might have felt the support of other survivors through the process,” Hamilton said. “I hope the many still in [the statute of limitations] will now come forward to bring Brennan to justice and complete what our survivor started so heroically.”

Brennan’s next preliminary hearing is scheduled for November 14.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

News Economic Justice

Wage Theft Could Cost $32 Million Weekly for Pennsylvania’s Low-Wage Workers

Michelle D. Anderson

Advocates say that government oversight is weak, and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent refusal to consider a case involving several thousand Walmart employees brought attention to what employment advocates in Pennsylvania call a hidden crisis: wage theft.

Legal aid agencies and advocacy organizations such as the Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project use the term to describe employers’ refusal to pay wages due their workers.

“Shortchanged: How Wage Theft Harms Pennsylvania’s Workers And Economy,” a study released by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, revealed that cooks, dishwashers, and food preparers, along with stock/office clerks and retail salespeople, were among the largest low-wage worker groups experiencing weekly minimum wage violations.

Employers commit wage theft by paying a daily rate that does not meet Pennsylvania’s $7.25 hourly minimum wage requirements, misclassifying people who work as independent contractors, paying in cash, failing to keep adequate records, and taking money out of paychecks to account for uniforms, supplies, and other products necessary to perform the job.

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Terry L. Fromson, managing attorney at the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal center, told Rewire that the practice compromises women’s economic security in Pennsylvania, where women make up about two-thirds of people who work for minimum wage, and where the minimum wage is the lowest allowed by federal law.

“Factor in losing 15 percent of a would-be paycheck to wage theft, and a family led by a primary or sole breadwinning mother sinks further into poverty,” Fromson said.

In the Walmart case, first decided by a Philadelphia jury in October 2006, 186,000 current and former employees from the retailer’s Pennsylvania stores were awarded $187 million in a class action suit for unpaid wages that were withheld between March 1998 and April 2006.

The workers’ counsel, Donovan Litigation Group, said the employees had been owed $140 million of the $187 million and will now split $224 million due to interest, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Walmart had appealed the decision in 2006, taking the case to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, who affirmed the jury verdict in 2014. U.S. Supreme Court justices on April 4 decided to not take up the case and to support the state’s high court decision.

In the years since Walmart employees first took action, workers and legal aid agencies across the United States, including in Pennsylvania, have brought many more wage theft cases.

Last year, for example, more than three dozen people who work for low wages at the Denver-area Carniceria y Verduleria Guadalajara grocery store won $305,000 in back wages and penalties in a U.S. District Court ruling using federal and state “wage theft” laws.

Papa John’s franchisees in New York were found guilty of wage theft last year and ordered to pay back more than $500,000 to settle claims that they swindled employees out of earned income.

There remains, however, little information as to how prevalent wage theft has become across the country, advocates for low-wage workers told Rewire. The Sheller Center last year sought to fill the void in wage theft data in Pennsylvania.

The study, which used the state’s right-to-know law to obtain data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) and relied upon extrapolations rather than original data, found that the state’s people who work for low wages, on average, lose about 15 percent of the their earnings to wage theft.

The study suggested that nearly 400,000 people who work in Pennsylvania experience a minimum wage violation and more than 300,000 experience an overtime violation every workweek. The weekly loss amounts to an estimated $19-32 million in wages, according to the “Shortchanged” authors.

The study revealed that the DLI, the state agency responsible for handling wage theft matters, was unable to collect wages in more than half of the complaints filed by people who work.

In fact, despite closing 5,000 cases annually, the DLI collects wages in about 2,000 of those incidents, according to the Temple University study.

The U.S. Department of Labor in a study released last year acknowledged the prevalence of wage theft among wage and salary workers in California and New York.

The report concluded that more than 300,000 people who work in those states were victims of wage theft. Many of those affected, the federal study revealed, work in service-based positions in the restaurant and hotel industries and were more likely to be women, people of color, and undocumented people.

Undocumented residents in New York, for example, were 3.1 times more likely to experience wage theft.

A local report released by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha in Minneapolis found that nearly half of low-wage workers in the Twin Cities have experienced wage theft.

Nadia Hewka, senior attorney at Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia-based legal aid outlet, said many businesses exploit undocumented workers’ vulnerabilities.

“Employers cut corners—some of them will choose to hire immigrant workers because they think they won’t complain,” Hewka told Rewire.

At Community Legal Services, Hewka said many people who work don’t know they are entitled to overtime and often seek to recover wages after they haven’t been paid for extended periods of time.

“That often happens with immigrant workers who are not familiar with laws in the U.S.,” said Hewka, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Workers Rights Coalition.

The “Shortchanged” authors noted that undocumented workers fear their supervisors will call immigration authorities, while immigrants with employment visas are often afraid they may lose visa privileges if they speak up.

Identifying Wage Theft

The Temple University study, which excluded low-wage employees in more rural settings, like farm, forestry, and fishing workers, outlined the many ways employers get away with wage theft.

The report relied upon a landmark investigation released in 2009 called “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” which surveyed low-wage workers in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles.

The “Broken Laws” study estimated about 90 percent of home health-care workers were victims of off-the-clock violations.

Philadelphia resident Natasha, whose last name was withheld by the “Shortchanged” authors, was a victim of wage theft while working as a home health-care worker.

Her employer, who often avoided workers and created barriers to keep employees from engaging each other about their paychecks, failed to compensate Natasha for travel time between client homes and even missed paycheck due dates.

The mother of four, who made $9.50 per hour and witnessed her boss call the police on coworkers who complained about wage theft, was ultimately fired after becoming ill despite her stellar attendance and documented excuse for missing work.

“I was so frustrated and I wanted to break down and cry because I couldn’t spend another week not being able to feed my children, having to choose between bread, eggs or milk,” she said, according to the study. “It was the worst experience of my life.”

Advocates for people who work low-wage jobs contend that wage theft also hurts the state’s economy, because money that would otherwise be spent in the economy is stolen from people who work, while businesses evade taxes that could be used to fund schools and road projects.

Law-abiding businesses may struggle to compete with enterprises that steal wages, advocates said.

The U.S. Department of Labor study noted that the burden of wage theft ultimately shifts from the private sector to the government because people who work for low wages will seek public assistance if their pay is insufficient.

People who work for low wages and their allies have looked to key policy changes to address wage theft, though it’s proven difficult because of resistance in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, Hewka said.

Some measures proposed during the 2015-2016 legislative session, like HB 250, which sought to raise the penalty for wage theft and for retaliating against an employee for reporting said theft, get stuck in committees and die there, she said.

A resolution to discharge the house’s labor and industry committee from further consideration of HB 250 was presented in October 2015.

Legislators in other states have proposed measures aimed at addressing wage theft. Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin last year proposed legislation that would allow the state’s Department of Workforce Development to charge interest on unpaid wages and levy fines up to $1,000 per violation against employers who break state wage theft laws.

Hewka added that government oversight, overall, is weak and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced, she said. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators, she said.

In Pennsylvania, the Minimum Wage Act and the Wage Payment and Collection Law are the protections low-wage workers can rely on to reclaim stolen wages.

The Wage Payment and Collection Law limits penalties to the higher of $500 or 25 percent of wages owed, and includes criminal fines limited to $300.

The state’s minimum wage law, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any damages to people who work low-wage jobs, unlike federal law.

“Shortchanged” authors have recommended harsher penalties for employers, including business license revocation and allowing people who work to place a hold on employer’s property until they receive unpaid wages.

Other solutions encourage state policymakers to collaborate with community groups to target investigations and to create a process for workers to submit anonymous or confidential complaints.

The state has enjoyed some successes in battling systemic wage theft against people who work.

Philadelphia City Councilman William “Bill” Greenlee sponsored a bill that will create a wage-theft watchdog in the city’s Managing Director’s Office.

The bill, which was unanimously approved by the council in November, requires a wage-theft coordinator to respond to worker complaints and find victims who may lack education about their rights.

The coordinator will be responsible for looking at thefts of anywhere between $100 and $10,000, and can revoke business licenses and impose a city fine of $2,000 per incident.

Hewka, who worked with Greenlee on the measure, said the city should be prepared to handle complaints in July.

The measure, she said, will offer relief to low-income citizens who cannot afford a private lawyer and legal aid groups who can only provided a limited amount of free services.

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