PI Original Adam Doster Wednesday April 7th, 2010, 2:41pm

Study: Wage Theft Rampant In Cook County

A new and unprecedented study of the low-wage labor market in Cook County highlights just how much abuse local workers face each and every day.

In the past year, the problem of wage theft inspired a book by Chicagoan Kim Bobo and, more recently, garnered the attention of the U.S. Labor Secretary. The Illinois Labor Department is doing all it can to protect workers, too. But a new and unprecedented study (PDF) of the low-wage labor market in Cook County highlights just how much abuse local workers face each and every day.

The comprehensive survey, conducted by Center for Urban Economic Development of the University of Illinois-Chicago, updates and localizes a study conducted last year of workers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.  Having collected data on 1,140 workers from Cook County (which boasts a low-wage workforce of 310,205), the study found that 47 percent toil in offices, restaurants, or work sites where core employment laws are routinely ignored or exploited.   Below are more details:

- Twenty-six percent were paid less than the minimum wage, 60 percent by more than $ 1 per hour. Another 15 percent were not paid the tipped worker minimum wage, which is lower than that for other jobs.

- For workers who worked more than 40 hours in a given week, 67 percent did not receive overtime time.

- Of the workers who experienced a serious injury while on the job, only 9 percent filed for workers compensation, forcing nearly half to pay medical bills out-of-pocket.

- Forty-three percent of workers who worked enough hours to qualify for a meal break did not receive one.

- Almost half of employees were not provided a pay stub, which is required by state law.

The workers surveyed made $322 per week on average, but lost an average of $50 due to these forms of theft.  Add that up across the region and you're talking about $7 million that isn't making its way into workers wallets (or the local economy.)

The Illinois Department of Labor tells WBEZ that they were able to recover $3.1 million in unpaid wages and overtime payments last year.  While that figure is encouraging, it represents just a tiny step when compared to the rampant violations the UIC researchers estimate are taking place. And due to the budget crisis, the Department of Labor's budget will likely be sliced next year, making enforcement even more difficult. Indeed, Gov. Pat Quinn's budget proposal (PDF) trims $487,100 from the department -- equivalent to about 6 percent of its total operating fund.

In the meantime, the State Senate passed a wage theft protection bill that would grant the Illinois Department of Labor authority to investigate and issue an enforceable judgment on claims lower than $3,000 per employee. It's currently waiting in the House Rules Committee. Hopefully, this report spurs lawmakers to act sooner rather than later.

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