All Mainers are entitled to the wages they earn, and no one should have their wages stolen by their employer.
While most employers play by the rules and treat their workers fairly, others do not. A new bill before the Maine Legislature would help hold bad employers accountable for not paying workers what they’re owed.
Wage theft is real.
In our state, workers lose tens of millions of dollars in unpaid wages every year. Researchers and labor advocates call these practices “wage theft,” and it comes in several forms:
- When workers, including tipped workers, are paid less than the minimum wage, that’s wage theft.
- When workers are asked to work late but don’t receive the overtime pay they’re owed, that is wage theft.
- When workers are made to “clock in” late or “clock out” early, so that they’re not paid for all the hours they’re worked, that is wage theft.
These are just a few examples, but there are others. Most wage theft occurs in jobs that already pay low wages; MECEP estimates that minimum wage violations in Maine alone amount to $30 million in 2017.i These workers with low wages have the least ability to confront their employers or advocate for themselves. The power differential is too large. That’s why the Department of Labor is tasked with going after bad actors and protecting the rights of workers.
LD 616 goes after wage theft in two ways:
Rep. Ben Collings of Portland has submitted a bill — LD 616, “An Act to Increase Accountability for Wage violations” — that would tackle the problem of wage theft on two fronts.
- Increased fines: Today, it’s cheap for bad businesses to violate workers’ rights: Violations of wage and benefit laws come with a fine of between $100 and $500, no matter how many times they are caught. LD 616 would increase fines to $500 for a first violation, and up to $2,500 for subsequent violations. That should discourage employers from committing wage theft or otherwise violating their workers’ rights.
- More investigators: LD 616 also empowers the state Department of Labor to ensure Maine’s laws effectively protect workers by funding four Labor and Safety Inspector positions in the Department of Labor. These positions will help the state proactively pursue bad actors, rather than waiting for whistleblowers.
The additional investigators would put Maine’s staffing for wage violation prevention in line with other states of a similar size,ii and return the state to its own historic staffing levels. (For historical perspective, in 1972 the Wage and Hour Division had one inspector for every 55,000 private-sector workers in the state, and conduced almost 7,500 inspections.iii Today, the Division is stretched nearly twice as thin. In 2018, the division had one inspector for every 100,000 workers, and conducted a little over 1,000 inspections or investigations.iv The addition of four new inspectors authorized by this bill would restore Maine’s capacity to enforce the law.)
Maine needs to do better by workers. LD 616 will help.
MECEP’s research suggests that the need for adequate enforcement has not gone away. In 2019, we conducted a survey of private-sector employees in Maine, which highlighted problems of wage theft in our state.
In the survey, five percent of hourly workers — the equivalent of 15,000 Mainers — said they had been paid less than the statutory minimum wage at some point. Similarly, the survey revealed thousands of salaried workers are likely being asked to work unpaid overtime in violation of state law.v
Mainers work hard and should never have to worry that their employer will pay them less than they’ve earned. Mainers deserve a state government that looks after their interests and protects them from unscrupulous employers, however few those bad employers might be. This bill restores the ability of the state to actively protect Maine workers, and the Legislature should enact it.
[i]MECEP analysis of US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Outgoing Rotation Group data, 2008-2017. Using the methodology found here. Excludes workers exempted from the state minimum wage (found at 26 MRS §664), and exemptions from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
[ii] The Wage and Hour Division of Maine’s Department of Labor has just six fulltime equivalent positions. Other states similar to Maine in size have much more robust departments; Hawaii has 18 employees, and New Hampshire has 16. See Meyer, Jacob, and Robert Greenleaf, Esqs. Enforcement of State Wage and Hour Laws: A Survey of State Regulators. National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School: New York, NY, April 2011.
[iii] Maine Department of Labor annual report, 1972.
[iv] Maine DOL, 2019 Annual Report on Wage and Hour Violations.
[v] Maine Center for Economic Policy, State of Working Maine 2019.