Millions of American workers are underpaid each year by an estimated $15 billion, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). While wage theft is rarely talked about in the context of crime, it represents a large portion of all theft committed in the United States.

The EPI study focused on the 10 most populous states where an estimated 2.4 million workers lost $8 billion in wages due to theft by their employers. Researchers say there are many ways employers can steal from their workers, many of which are subtle and complicated.

What is wage theft?

The basic definition is an employer’s failure to pay workers the full wages for which they are entitled. There are many forms, including:

  • Failing to pay nonexempt workers overtime
  • Paying workers less than the minimum wage
  • Asking employees to work off-the-clock
  • Not giving workers legal meal breaks
  • Illegally deducting pay from their checks
  • Not providing pay stubs
  • Confiscating tips or failing to pay tipped workers the minimum wage
  • Misclassifying workers as independent contractors

Labor Department takes action

Enforcement of wage theft typically falls upon the U.S. Department of Labor. Last year, the agency returned a record amount of $308 million to workers, which still pales in comparison to the estimated $8 billion stolen each year. A recent case resulted in a $130,000 judgment against a Virginia home health care agency that misclassified its workers as independent contractors.

Consult an attorney dedicated to workers’ rights

The EPI says many workers don’t take action against their employers, fearing reprisals or believing they do not have the financial means to take legal action. However, workers are protected under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. If you suspect that your employer has cheated you out of your hard-earned wages, an experienced employment law attorney here in Wisconsin will aggressively fight to get you the compensation you deserve.