By Dan Carpenter
INDIANAPOLIS – No good deed goes unpunished, the saying goes, and it is equally axiomatic that no weak participant in the Indiana economy escapes the punitive might of the Statehouse elite.
Dan Carpenter is a columnist for TheStatehouseFile.com and the author of “Indiana Out Loud.”
If you’re screwable and you poke your head out of hiding, they will spot you and they will screw you.
Such is the lesson learned in this session of the Indiana General Assembly by those doughty folks who have taken up the fight against wage theft, a largely below-radar phenomenon that is costing working people billions in hard-earned dollars across the nation every year. That’s money that would be going to purchases of goods and services, taxes, and avoidance of welfare – all good for all of us.
The evil wears many faces – among them, overtime without the mandated time and a half, skimming of waitpersons’ tips by restaurant bosses, bogus deductions from paychecks, long waits for that first check with the gap never being made up, and just plain stiffing. Construction temp workers finish their day and find no sign of the guy who recruited them. Nursing home aides arrive for their morning shift and find the place padlocked, and themselves on a long list of the proprietor’s creditors.
There are laws against this sort of thing, at the federal, state and municipal levels, with more of them popping up (e.g., Chicago, New York State) all the time. Indiana, the advocates say, has a fairly strong one, administered by serious agents who’ve had success obtaining back pay.
Where the bureaucratic process falls short, what’s a ripped-off janitor or waitress to do – get a lawyer? Well, yes. The Indiana law provides that a private attorney can take a wage dispute case for no fee up front, with the employer paying not only his bill but also a penalty of up to three times the withheld wages if he prevails.
That still amounts to pretty limited recourse for the thousands who believe they’ve been cheated and the thousands who aren’t even aware it’s happened to them. To attack both fronts in Indianapolis, a campaign has been waged by labor activists and by volunteers and students with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and the Health and Human Rights Clinic of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law here.
The hope has been to help individuals on a pro bono basis while raising the profile for the issue and thus inspiring an even stronger law.
The reality is, this legislature does not roll that way. Drawing its attention, and that of its sponsors, to the plight of workers is like informing the Sheriff of Nottingham that he missed a couple of collection points.
House Bill 1126, which passed the House 91-3 on Jan. 23 and is scheduled for a vote by the Senate Pensions and Labor Committee next Wednesday, would drastically reduce the already low ceiling on lawyers’ fees and the already modest employer penalties, thus planting disincentives for the former to gamble on contingency cases and for the latter to do right in the first place. Just for good measure, out of nowhere but the realm of pro-business avarice, the bill also allows employers to hold back as much as $2,500 from a worker’s check to cover uniforms, equipment and training. The old company store, alive in Honest to Goodness 21st century Indiana.
And right-to-work Indiana. We know we have a labor-unfriendly government. We also know that wage theft does not happen in workplaces with unions. What’s sad about the House vote, with Democrats falling in line, is that workers outside of organized labor really lack for representation in this state where the link between economics and justice is never the kind of connection that works.
Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, contributor to Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of “Indiana Out Loud.”