Letting firms skirt the law hurts workers as well as honest contractors
BY JOE BYRNE
WAGE THEFT IS more common than armed robbery in our country and three times as costly to the economy. Here in Massachusetts, wage theft costs individual workers more than $1 billion a year in earned wages. This hurts our communities and all the state’s taxpayers. The Responsible Development Coalition, consisting of responsible developers, contractors, and the Carpenters Union, believes that the Legislature must act in the new session to end the practice, hold violators accountable, and promote responsible development in the Commonwealth.
Wage theft occurs when employers willfully break employment laws and regulations to increase their own profit. Wage theft infractions, from not paying overtime, requiring off-the-clock work, and, sometimes, not paying workers at all happen every day here in Massachusetts. This equates to over $50 billion nationwide that should be going into worker paychecks but instead stays in company owners’ pockets.
Businesses that engage in wage theft as well as paying their employees in cash “under the table” often violate other rules as well, like minimum wage requirements or safety rules. Too often, dishonest general contractors allow subcontractors they hire to break employment laws because it means more profits for themselves. This hurts not only the workers, but honest contractors who play by the rules.
Massachusetts, a leader on so many other issues, has largely been a spectator to this criminal activity, and leaders have been reluctant to act. But why? While our neighbors in New York just passed the most stringent anti-wage-theft legislation in the nation, Massachusetts permits bad actors to cut corners to turn a higher profit. Local initiatives in Cleveland, Ohio, and Austin, Texas, are taking steps to eliminate this practice.
Across Massachusetts, workers are being exploited while the concerns of our communities are ignored. Many municipalities have taken action due to the delays at the state level. Lynn, Somerville, Framingham, and Northampton are just a few of the communities showing true leadership on this issue.
The election of Gov. Maura Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll gives us great hope. As attorney general, Maura Healey, aggressively protected the rights of workers, and owns a strong record on prosecuting wage theft. She knows that development, when done properly and responsibly, creates economic opportunity for all. That means we must ensure employers in the Commonwealth follow the law. As mayor of Salem, Kim Driscoll also fought against wage theft and promoted responsible development in her city.
During her swearing in ceremony, Gov. Healey cited the state’s affordable housing crisis and committed to making this issue a top priority. The Responsible Development Coalition agrees that this is a critically important issue.
We have advocated for the state to build more affordable and workforce housing units to meet current needs and to help attract new businesses to the Commonwealth. We believe that this should be done in a way that not only benefits those that need housing, but also the workers who build it. If workers who build such housing are not paid good wages and benefits or are subject to the rampant wage theft that currently exists in the production of housing, we will be adding to the need for subsidized affordable housing rather than solving the existing problem.
With billions of dollars of state and local money to be invested in housing and our state’s infrastructure in the next several years, the new administration can make our state a national model on how to protect workers and ensure that development benefits all parts of communities.
We believe that these issues will be a top priority for the new administration, and we hope that legislative leaders will act on these issues that have broad public support. According to a survey conducted by MassINC Polling Group, more than two-thirds of Massachusetts voters would support legislation making lead contractors responsible for wage theft by their subcontractors and even more support increased penalties for those that engage in these practices.
In addition, the poll found that 80 percent of voters support the state encouraging the use of responsible development practices that provide workers a living wage and benefits and support apprenticeship programs to train new workers.
As the Responsible Development Coalition considers the best path forward to ending wage theft and encouraging responsible development practices in the Commonwealth, we are eager to engage policy makers at every level. We believe responsible real estate development is crucial to our future, our economy, and our collective quality of life. Massachusetts can and should do better. We look forward to working with the new administration on addressing these important issues.