Analysis Health Systems

How Workers’ Comp Policies Leave Women to Fend for Themselves

Jean Stevens

"It's ironic and stunning that, on the one hand, we’ve seen incredible progress for women, yet on the other hand, they’re inundated with little bits of discrimination and people don’t really realize it," said Jenny Schwartz, partner at Outten & Golden, a national employment law firm.

Shortly after receiving a diagnosis of Stage 1 breast cancer in 2012, Janice Page of San Diego was surprised when her boss told her that she should file a claim for workers’ compensation—payments from an employer to compensate a worker who suffers a job-related injury. Page, a county sheriff and first responder to chemical fires, explosions, gas spills, and other emergencies, didn’t know much about it. Still, she took her employer’s advice, and when her state-appointed doctor determined that her cancer would not qualify her to receive any workers’ compensation, something felt off.

Page contacted an attorney, and learned that if she’d been a man diagnosed with prostate cancer, she’d automatically be entitled to substantial benefits.

“I don’t think it’s fair at all, and it’s not right,” said Page, who recently testified to California Assembly members about her experience when the assembly was considering new legislation to ban gendered assessments in workers’ compensation claims. She’d undergone multiple surgeries, a mastectomy, and reconstruction as a result of treating her cancer. “I don’t want another woman to have to deal with what I’m dealing with.”

Despite Page’s story, and evidence that more than 9,000 claimants annually would be affected by this change in the law, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the legislation—called AB 305—on October 6, cowing to pressure from corporate and compensation insurance industry lobbyists threatened by the possible added protection to injured workers. The bill’s veto serves not only as a strike against women, but also a convenient strike against workers in the escalating corporate war on workers’ compensation.

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AB 305 and Its Implications

Introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) in March, AB 305 would have amended California’s labor law as it involves state-hired doctors who evaluate workers for workplace compensation claims. Under three amendments, the bill would bar doctors from factoring gendered medical conditions of menopause and pregnancy into their evaluations of an injury when those conditions had no proven impact on their injury. Doctors could also not factor in workplace sexual harassment, menopause, or pregnancy to the case of a worker who suffered a workplace psychiatric injury if that injury arose at the same time of the harassment, menopause, or pregnancy. Finally, it would have forced doctors to rate prostate and breast cancer equally in their evaluations.

Gonzalez and the bill’s supporters, including the California Democratic Caucus, workers’ groups, and many of the state’s women’s groups, believe the administration’s denial reflects a greater war on women in the workplace. While workplace discrimination such as this hardly resembles the explicit forms faced by women workers in the past, it still manifests in various ways, including in workers’ compensation decisions, said Jenny Schwartz, partner at Outten & Golden, a national employment law firm.

“It’s ironic and stunning that, on the one hand, we’ve seen incredible progress for women, yet on the other hand, they’re inundated with little bits of discrimination and people don’t really realize it,” Schwartz said. “In order to achieve gender equity in the workforce, the whole point is to diligently attack each and every occurrence which is perceived to be a smaller type of discrimination. It’s a bit like whack-a-mole.”

AB 305 inspired a heated “boobs and prostate debate” among lawmakers and pundits, as the bill would require workers’ compensation doctors to rate the diagnosis of breast cancer and prostate cancer equally. Under current California law, which is based on a system of guidelines by the American Medical Association (AMA), workers with prostate cancer resulting from their work conditions receive a 16 to 20 percent disability rating. Workers diagnosed with breast cancer “of childbearing age” only receive a 5 percent rating and those of “non-childbearing age,” like Page, have a 0 percent rating, said Christel Schoenfelder, workers’ compensation attorney at Rose, Klein & Marias LLP and president-elect of the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association.

“Imagine a 60-year-old female firefighter who’s been fighting fires and been in the front lines,” Schoenfelder said. “She’s diagnosed with breast cancer and it’s related to toxic exposure. When the doctor goes to calculate her percentage of permanent disability, she’d get nothing, because she’s not a woman of childbearing age. Now, in the same situation, but a man [with prostate cancer], he gets 16 percent to 20 percent. If he’s incontinent, he gets another percent increase. If sexual dysfunction, another.”

To AB 305 supporters, this gendered distinction indicates that AMA guidelines only value breasts in the context of child-rearing; they have no other purpose, and in turn, their loss has little effect. It ignores the side effects of breast cancer and mastectomies, Page said, including physical pain, numbness, reduced range of motion, psychological anguish, post-traumatic stress disorder, and loss of sense of self and identity.

“If a man had his balls removed and had plastic ones put there, how would he feel?” Page said. “If they had been removed, I’m sure it would be psychologically [damaging] to them, too.”

AB 305’s second proposed change to the California labor code sparked far less excitement, but the need behind it feels equally infuriating to supporters. Under current state workers’ compensation law, a person who cannot work at all because of the job injury is considered permanently disabled. State-appointed doctors examining a woman worker who has been injured are entitled to credit—or apportion—some of their injury to menopause and pregnancy, even if that person never felt any side effects or health problems from these conditions before their on-the-job injury, Schoenfelder said. In turn, these women receive less compensation from their employer. In other words, male workers facing certain injuries would receive full benefits, but injured women workers would automatically have their benefits reduced if it is possible their injury results from menopause or pregnancy, even if there is no indication of these conditions. AB 305 would forbid doctors from apportioning injuries to these conditions. It would also prevent them from factoring in psychiatric disabilities caused by these conditions, and sexual harassment resulting from these conditions.

“It’s when something is asymptomatic, and maybe the person doesn’t even know she has it, and it hasn’t even hampered your job,” Schoenfelder said. “These are not actual causes [of an injury], but risk factors. That’s what makes it discriminatory.”

Schoenfelder, rifling through files in her office during one recent phone call, read aloud from one report from 2014 where a doctor evaluated a worker with “common gender nonoccupational risk” and reduced her rating by 20 percent. In another 2015 report of a worker with a shoulder rotator cuff injury, she said, the doctor observed “calcium deposits in a rotator cuff,” but blamed 50 percent of it on “genetic predisposition,” as women are more likely to have such deposits. Then 50 percent of her disability was reduced. She added that other reports include doctors tying workplace injury symptoms to pregnancy and breastfeeding, even when symptoms occurred before workers became pregnant.

“I have never seen a report where a doctor has specifically said, ‘men get this more often, so I’ll apportion about 50 percent because I know statistically men get this more,'” Schoenfelder said. “When conditions cited by doctors are exclusive to women, then it becomes that being female is a preexisting condition.”

Gov. Brown rejected this thinking, however, claiming that these sorts of evaluations are valid. He wrote in his “veto message” that AB 305 “is based on a misunderstanding of the American Medical Association’s evidence-based standard, which is the foundation for permanent disability ratings, and replaces it with an ill-defined and unscientific standard.”

It’s a curious position, given that doctors in California and many other states make these evaluations based on the AMA guidelines, which is an inherently man-made system. Individual body parts receive greater “worth” and compensation, with required surgeries and “hardware” earning more. (Other states, including New York and Florida, have created their own system to evaluate disability.)

“That system is not really all that scientific to begin with,” said Julius Young, partner at Boxer & Gerson, LLP in Oakland, explaining that the guidelines are built around a conception of ‘whole person impairment” and ability to perform daily life activities with a certain injury, and this is given an arbitrary percentage. “[Brown’s] saying that it’s undefined and unscientific is a little ironic. People who were putting these things together maybe didn’t believe in certain conditions. They probably didn’t think about women losing their breasts. [It’s] changed over time with different editions.”

Young, who followed AB 305 since its introduction at his blog WorkersCompZone.com, believes the veto makes sense in the current California political climate around workers’ compensation. After a spike in workers’ comp claims in 2003, he explained, the state passed some reforms that were quite popular with insurance providers. Under those reforms, a doctor was required to express an opinion of all the possible causes for injury. This led to doctors “splitting up a pie,” as Young explained, for example, attributing one-third of the injury as a direct result to what happened while on the job, one-third to a prior injury, and one-third to aging process and osteoporosis. Subsequent rising costs, however, led to greater reforms in 2012, but no one remains satisfied.

“It’s really an issue that keeps coming back,” Young said. “[And I think] Jerry Brown doesn’t want to see this [workers’ compensation bill] become a front-page issue.”

The veto, then, represents another strike by businesses in their campaign against workers’ compensation.

“Employers are doing everything they can to reduce costs of workers’ comp,” said Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit public education and advocacy organization that provides workers’ rights information. “If they can screw their workers, keep wages flat, keep benefits flat, cut health care, they will,” she said. To fight it, advocates and workers must step forward and bring the most egregious examples to light.

Left to Fend for Themselves

States nationwide have slashed workers’ compensation benefits within the past ten years, according to a recent ProPublica and NPR investigation of insurance industry data, state laws, and court and medical records. Employers pay less in compensation today than any time in the past 25 years, and California and Oklahoma tied for the most cuts since 2014, the study found. Federal workers’ compensation mandates put in place in 1972 are mostly dissolved: Gone are the years where injured workers could pick their own doctors, receive compensation for all the years of their disability, or, if they died due to their injury, ensure that their spouses would receive death benefits until remarriage and their children would receive tuition benefits through college graduation.

According to the ProPublica study, legislators from California, West Virginia, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have imposed two-year time limits on claims made by temporarily disabled workers, even if they still cannot work after those two years. In another ProPublica investigation that NPR released in October, Oklahoma and Texas—and possibly soon Tennessee and South Carolina—have passed laws allowing employers to “opt out” of workers’ compensation completely. Employers then create their own workplace injury plans, which, according to the investigation, “generally cover fewer injuries, cut off benefits payments sooner, control access to doctors and even impose mandatory settlements.” Employers in those states, including Costco, Taco Bell, and Sears, have “opted out” of workers’ compensation to create their own plans when workers become injured. Under their opt-out plans, employers may refuse to cover the cost of basic injuries, like work-related infections, and deny benefits if injuries are not reported within the same shift when the injury occurs, preventing workers from making a claim if they only realize later on the full scope of their injury. They also require that company representatives accompany injured workers to doctor’s appointments so as to monitor or interpret what doctors say. Even worse, these plans do not provide an option to appeal to a third party or court, unlike in the current system, which has due process protections built in. Opponents consider it a return to the Industrial Revolution “when workers and their families had to sue their employers or bear the costs of on-the-job injuries themselves.”

Workers receiving less are now turning to welfare and other government programs, including disability benefits through Social Security, which opponents to these plans argue puts a greater burden on the government, and in turn, taxpayers. Today, families and their own private health insurance pay for about 63 percent of their lost wages and medical costs of work injuries, while workers’ compensation payments covers only about 21 percent of lost wages and medical costs of work injuries and illnesses, according to a 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Safety and Health Administration. Taxpayers cover the rest. In addition, 97 percent of workers with occupational illnesses receive no compensation, mostly because doctors do not diagnose them as work-related.

Left to fend for themselves in court based on the current law, many injured women workers could not effectively challenge workers’ compensation decisions for their injuries when doctors unfairly factored in menopause, pregnancy, or sexual harassment, or minimized their breast cancer. They typically must hire an attorney. But not all workers can afford legal help, leaving these individuals to face discrimination at a disproportionate disadvantage.

“Any employee in California can be subjected to the workers’ comp system at any moment,” Schwartz said. “If you’re poorly educated or from a lower socioeconomic group, or struggling with economic issues, and you’re not represented by counsel, you’ll have to accept what happens through the system.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the Workplace Fairness executive director’s name. It’s Paula Brantner, not Branter. We regret the error.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.

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.