Today in Ohio–just today–employers will steal $1.6 million from workers in unpaid wages. This is the nationwide epidemic known as wage theft. When companies refuse to pay promised wages, pay less than the minimum wage, fail to pay for all hours worked, or don’t pay overtime compensation as required by law, they are stealing from employees.
Each year, companies steal $15 billion from their workers, more than the value of every robbery committed in the United States. In Ohio, the typical victim of wage theft loses $2,800 per year.
Today in Ohio, 40% of hourly workers couldn’t tell you their schedule for next week. More than half of young workers of color have no say at all in their schedules, according to the Fair Workweek Initiative. This lack of predictability complicates the prospects of finding additional work, going to school and securing transportation and childcare.
Cleveland can and must do better. Cities across the country are playing a leading role in combating wage theft and unfair scheduling by passing municipal legislation to protect workers. Cleveland should do the same.
The Guardians for Fair Work campaign is calling on Mayor Justin Bibb and Cleveland City Council to adopt fair scheduling and wage enforcement policies for employers that receive city contracts or financial incentive packages. They can and must ensure that Clevelanders’ tax dollars are invested in employers who pay workers fairly. Moreover, they can and must demonstrate their commitment to working families who have struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic.
Wage theft and unfair scheduling are especially pernicious in Cleveland, one of the poorest big cities in the country. Recent research has demonstrated the immeasurable stress that poor Clevelanders live under as they make impossible decisions about allocating limited resources. Many Clevelanders cannot afford food on a regular basis. Many cannot afford their monthly utility bills. Many cannot afford their rent.
And it is the most vulnerable working Clevelanders – poor workers, young workers, women, people of color, immigrants – who are most commonly victims of wage theft and unfair scheduling.
Wage theft is already illegal, but with only five investigators across Ohio, the state’s enforcement has proven wholly inadequate. And the punishment for offending employers – fines and warnings – tend to be so mild that many employers consider them costs of doing business.
A Cleveland led by our Mayor and Council that aggressively reaches out to protect its residents from abuse of all forms could also change state and national politics. A body that focuses on policies that materially improve the lives of families could help us shed the dubious distinction of being one of America’s poorest big cities. While other Ohio peer cities like Columbus and Cincinnati already have wage theft protections on the books, Cleveland has an opportunity to lead the state on fair scheduling protections.
And the good news is that Cleveland has a legacy of doing this important policy making at the municipal level. In fact, Council President Blaine Griffin was a key leader in 2000 in the successful campaign to secure the Fair Employment Law before joining Council.
The city’s workers and their families need every dollar that they’ve rightfully earned. The Guardians for Fair Work campaign will continue to call on city leaders to urgently pass these essential wage theft and fair scheduling policies.
Grace Heffernan is a resident of the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood in Cleveland. She spends most days thinking about improving the lives of working people across the city of Cleveland in her roles as a workforce development professional, member of the Northeast Ohio Worker Center, and proud supporter of the Guardians for Fair Work campaign.