Common Good Iowa

Guest opinion: Iowa needs to stop employers who steal from workers

October 28, 2022

Guest opinion, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Oct. 28, 2022

By Sean Finn, Common Good Iowa, policy analyst

Dishonest employers steal $900 million from Iowa workers each year — 10 times as much as all other theft combined.

Wage theft harms workers, families and communities throughout Iowa. It holds back responsible businesses that pay their employees according to the law. It costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Not nearly enough is being done to stop it. And, it’s getting worse.

Wage theft takes many forms, but in every case, the employer fails to pay an employee what they earned. In many cases, employers pay less than minimum wage, fail to pay time and a half for overtime, require employees to work off the clock or make paycheck deductions the worker didn’t agree to.

A new report from Common Good Iowa shines a light on the prevalence of wage theft in our state — and the harms it causes Iowa workers.

Employers in Iowa steal an average of $300 per week from 250,000 workers. Think about all $300 a week can buy. For some, that’s an entire rent or mortgage payment. That’s groceries in the pantry. That’s a family’s health insurance premium. That’s savings for a used car.

What is the government’s job if not to protect the people of Iowa from crimes like this? Iowa’s workers are the backbone of our state’s communities and economy. Iowans put in the hours day after day, and they deserve to take home every cent they earn.

The government can’t even plead ignorance. It has been over a decade since the Iowa Policy Project reported that wage theft cost workers in Iowa $600 million a year. Since then, the state has failed to take meaningful action to address this problem. It didn’t hire nearly enough investigators — the state employs just two to fight wage theft statewide — nor did it hit perpetrators with fines or simplify the process of filing wage claims.

As a result, the state loses out on over $60 million in income and sales tax each year. That’s enough to build up to six elementary schools. With meaningful effort and investment to address wage theft, the state could substantially help working Iowans get what they’re owed, boost the economy by returning those wages into local communities, and raise additional revenue to support public projects like schools.

What can Iowans do?

Educate friends, family and workers — countless workers do not know their rights and are unaware that their boss is cheating them.

Talk to state legislators about acting on this issue we’ve known about for over a decade. Lawmakers won’t act unless they hear what their constituents expect: Enforce the law. Strengthen the law. Empower workers.

Iowans being cheated have options. Reaching out to local worker centers or contacting Iowa Legal Aid can help workers figure out what next steps work best for them.

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Sean Finn is a policy analyst at Common Good Iowa.

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