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Lexington must guard against employer ‘wage theft’

Thank you to Lexington City Council members — and to Mayor Jim Gray — who supported passage of Lexington’s new minimum wage ordinance. This is a proud moment for the city. Lexington joins Louisville and Birmingham as cities in the South with a local minimum wage higher than the federal $7.25 an hour.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti, increases the minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour over three years. The increases would begin on July 1 and continue until 2018. All told, they will give an estimated 30,000 workers an overdue raise.

Winning a higher wage for the city is a huge accomplishment. But the wage increase will only be a benefit to workers if it is enforced.

Of course, some employers will accept the increase as the cost of doing business in Lexington. Many employers already pay higher than minimum wages. Some may argue the ordinance’s legality. The Kentucky Supreme Court will most likely decide in the next year the fate of Louisville’s similar ordinance. Others, however, will outright ignore the ordinance.

Ignoring the ordinance would constitute “wage theft,” depriving workers of wages owed to them by law. This occurs when workers receive payment at a rate below the legal hourly minimum. Wage theft also occurs when employees are forced to work off-the-clock, are not paid overtime, or fail to get the required rest and meal breaks, among other abuses.

According to the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, workers lose more money from wage theft than victims of burglary suffer in property loss. That means that Kentucky workers would be better off financially having their home burglarized than working for an unsavory employer.

In Lexington, wage theft is real. I know this because my organization holds monthly “wage claim clinics:” free consultations at the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic for workers who may have been denied pay. That service keeps us plenty busy each month.

Wage theft is more common in industries that employ low wage workers. The challenge will be connecting these workers to accurate information about the new ordinance. City government and community organizations must form partnerships to educate workers on the new increase. Cities around the country have found cost-effective ways to fund this kind of outreach. Utilizing our community organizations ensures that our most vulnerable workers receive information from the people they already trust.

Along with education, the city must promote compliance. The city should create an effective way to submit and investigate complaints. These investigations should lead to back wages paid to workers. The city could also fine employers for non-compliance to deter future violations.

State and federal agencies are not authorized to investigate violations of local ordinances. A city agency can and should. However, the city will not be alone in its efforts. The city can work with the Kentucky Labor Cabinet and the United States Department of Labor to create enforcement priorities, target certain industries, track violators and punish repeat offenders. Coordination makes government more efficient. Best of all, enforcement partnerships reduce wage theft.

The city should also make violations of the ordinance available to the public. Just as consumers look up health scores for restaurants, consumers could research local wage violations. Consumers are savvy on this issue. We care if someone was exploited in the creation of a product or service. We will take our business elsewhere if we can access information on violations.

We can all work together to combat wage theft and ensure Lexington workers see the raise they deserved.

McKenzie Cantrell is Kentucky Equal Justice Center’s employment law attorney.

At issue: Nov. 20 Herald-Leader article, “Lexington council passes $10.10 minimum wage”

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