Stopping Wage Theft

An Interview with Kim Bobo

Sally Steenland talks with Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, about what she's doing to make sure all workers get the pay they're owed.

SOURCE: Kim Bobo

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

Kim Bobo is the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago. A widely quoted advocate for worker-justice issues, she has written two books, Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid And What We Can Do About It and Lives Matter: A Handbook for Christian Organizing. She also co-authored the best-selling Organizing for Social Change. She founded the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues in 1991 and was named one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” by Utne Reader in 2009.

Recently she sat down with Sally Steenland, Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, to discuss how to fight wage theft, stand up for workers’ rights, and channel the energy of Occupy Wall Street into victories for the 99 percent.

Sally Steenland: Interfaith Worker Justice recently held a campaign for “just jobs” called National Days of Action. Can you give us some highlights?

Kim Bobo: Our interfaith group in Houston went from location to location, finding employers who weren’t paying people their wages and demanding that they be paid. Groups in Austin worked with the police department to enforce a new wage-theft services law. In the Miami area, groups issued a report on the wage bill that had passed the previous year, showing how incredibly successful it was. In Chicago folks went with some car wash workers to get the wages they were owed and to kick off a campaign to organize and support car wash workers. There were events all over the country lifting up the issue of wage theft and connecting it to the crisis we have in the nation.

SS: “Wage theft” is a pretty self-explanatory term—and a quite common occurrence—but I’m not sure how familiar it is.

KB: Wage theft is when an employer illegally doesn’t pay workers all their wages. It includes not paying minimum wage, not paying overtime, shorting workers on hours, having them start working before they clock in, and then having them clock out and work longer after that, and stealing tips. It’s also when employers commit payroll fraud, such as calling people independent contractors when they’re actually employees—that deception not only steals from workers but steals from the public coffer.

I wish I could say these are isolated incidents, but in fact they are not. We have a national crisis of wage theft. The National Employment Law Project did a large study where they interviewed over 43,000 low-wage workers—these are workers earning $10 an hour or less—and found that one out of four wasn’t being paid the minimum wage, which is already pretty low. Of those who worked overtime—more than 40 hours a week—76 percent of workers weren’t paid for their overtime hours. I talk to workers all the time and they tell me, “Well, my employer doesn’t pay overtime. My employer says, ‘Hey, if you want overtime, go find another job.’” Unfortunately there are a lot of employers who are just flagrantly violating the law.

SS: In this economy where jobs are hard to get and employers may feel they’ve got the upper hand, what can we do?

KB: The good news about wage theft is that there’s actually a lot we can do. A little public shining the light on employers who don’t pay people seems to make a huge difference. We have a network of 26 worker centers around the country affiliated with Interfaith Worker Justice, and they have honed the skill of taking a small group of workers and religious allies to meet with employers who haven’t paid their workers, and they say, “You need to pay these people right now.” Most of the time we can get employers to pay people. So a little community action can make employers straighten up. I think some of them think nobody’s watching, but if you and I are watching and we go meet with them, they’ll actually do the right thing.

Secondly, we have to build relationships with government agencies charged with enforcing the law. There are about a thousand federal investigators responsible for enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act. They’re all over the country. If there’s one near you, you should go meet with them and see how you can help. In most states there are also state Departments of Labor—and these departments are equally understaffed and overwhelmed and need our support as well. We can’t enforce the law but we can support the state agencies in reaching out to workers.

Thirdly, we need to be educating all young people and workers as to what their rights are in the workplace. It’s easier to stand up if you know what your rights are. In community colleges and high schools, in congregations where you have a lot of workers who may not know their rights, we need to be doing worker-rights training.

Fourthly, we have to be sure, both personally and in the institutions we’re a part of, that we’re paying people fairly. If you hire a company whose workers cut your yard, clean your home, or do construction work, you need to ask how their workers are paid. Those industries are rife with wage theft. If you don’t ask how workers are paid, you could be contributing to a contracting system where they’re being paid unfairly.

Finally, just a simple thing: If you go to a restaurant and are not sure about its practices, you should pay your tip in cash. That way, the servers will get their tips.

SS: That’s all good advice, from public shaming to enforcing the law to helping workers know their rights. It makes sense that employers might try to keep profits if workers won’t say anything, but if workers stand up they may get the money they worked for.

You mentioned religious allies going with workers to meet with employers. You mentioned houses of worship. Talk about the faith aspect of what you do.

KB: All religious teachings are strong on loving your neighbor as yourself and caring for one another. And all our religious traditions have been on the frontlines of fighting poverty, especially with soup kitchens and shelters. But when you talk to someone in leadership at a soup kitchen or shelter, they know that many people are there because they don’t have a job or don’t have a job that pays enough.

Interfaith Worker Justice is building on these faith commitments to care for people and on the direct service work that people of faith have done for decades, and we are helping them move into public policy and direct-action efforts around making sure workers get paid—and paid fairly. Really it is so central to all of our faiths to care about people. This is another way we can more effectively care for our brothers and sisters.

SS: What different faith groups do you work with?

KB: On the board we have Catholics and Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and a growing contingent of Buddhist involvement, Hindus, and certainly plenty of people who refer to themselves as spiritual. They are not connected to a denomination but share core values. We are widely interfaith and work with a range of people who share our values.

SS: You’ve been doing work on economic inequality for a long time. We now have the Occupy Wall Street movement and the “99 percent” who’ve brought issues of inequality and economic fairness into the public debates. Why are these issues getting traction now?

KB: Inequality in the nation has been growing for decades, so this is one of those issues that has been simmering below the surface for a long while. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the “occupiers” who were able to tap into this. I pray for them daily. I say “Praise God!” for these young people who have the courage to put up tents. I’m not excited about sleeping in tents any longer—in November, in Chicago! But God bless them for doing it.

I think they captured the imagination and framed the issue in language we can all understand. The combination of historically growing inequality in this country, a simmering frustration with it, and then the dramatic representation and confrontation combined with the really brilliant messaging around the 99 percent. I mean, it has taken off and all of us who have been working on these issues for a long time are tickled pink to have the nation grapple with questions of inequality. It gives me great hope that we might actually address some of these issues in a serious way. So God bless the Occupy movement people.

SS: You created a congregational discussion guide and a prayer guide for different faiths involved in Occupy Wall Street. In it you tap into the parable of Jesus and the lost sheep.

KB: The parable is about 100 sheep. One gets lost and the shepherd goes to find it. It’s really a parable of how God cares for each and every one of us. And if one is lost, God’s going to go find that one. We have a nation where 99 percent are getting lost. The vast majority of Americans are not sharing in the prosperity of society right now. And in the same way that God cares for the one, God certainly cares for the 99. We used that biblical imagery, which is familiar to many in the Christian world, to ask congregations to grapple with the question: “What does this mean for us as a congregation and is there more we could be doing to help unemployed workers and those who haven’t benefitted in the growth of the last few decades?”

Our sense is there are a lot of people in congregations who don’t quite know what to do or how to think about the Occupy movement. They frankly are not all that keen about people who camp out on park grounds and they don’t really understand what’s going on—yet they do fundamentally know that the levels of inequality we have in this society are wrong and we need to be doing something about it. So the Occupy movement is an opportunity to have a “teachable moment” to talk about these things. And people have been doing that.

SS: Do you think this cuts across partisan and political lines? Does the issue of “the 99 percent” and fairness resonate in more conservative faith communities, or do you think that there are political limits to it?

KB: I think that the issues of disparity, of people not sharing in prosperity, the need for accountability and responsibility for those who have wealth—these are issues that are shared across the political spectrum. I grew up in an evangelical home. In church half the folks were probably Republicans and half were Democrats, but everybody cared about poor people. Everybody thought there shouldn’t be huge levels of disparity between rich and poor, and that with wealth came enormous responsibilities. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I think that is a sense you get across the political divide among people of faith.

SS: Let’s go back to Occupy Wall Street for a minute. It seems to be in transition in some cities as Zuccotti Park and other places have been emptied out. What would you like to see happen in the coming weeks and months with the protests and the movement?

KB: I’d love to see us find ways to channel the energy and excitement of the movement to some very visible wins for working people. If you think back on the civil rights movement, they were able to integrate lunch counters and force bus stations to integrate. They were able to have lots of local wins, and that encouraged people and got people excited that they could do this in their own town too. We’ve got to find some ways to get wins—and they’re probably not going to all be wins in Washington.

Now obviously I’m hoping to get an extension of unemployment insurance on the federal level. But in the next year or two can we get more local wage-theft bills passed? We’ve won a few in the last few years, could we pass a few more? Could we get 8 or 10 cities passing paid sick day laws? On public jobs, could we force accountability on payment and hiring? So again, there is a whole set of things we could work on, and win, that would be encouraging for building the movement.

SS: The word “worker” is in the title of your organization. With wage theft, minimum wage, and so many other issues, you focus on workers. But you also have a project called the Ethical Leaders Business Campaign. Tell us about that.

KB: It’s interesting because there are all sorts of business-ethics groups, but by and large the question of wages and benefits is not even in the discussion. Yet what is more central in terms of ethics for workers than what you get paid? We’ve been trying to identify employers who have a personal commitment to paying people fairly and justly and to not only acknowledge the good work they do but get them to talk about it and push some of their colleagues.

In my book Wage Theft in America, I have a new chapter on ethical businesses. Some are so exciting because they’re often business owners who operate in sectors where a lot of folks are cheating workers. But they have made a personal decision not to do that.

For instance, a woman who runs a restaurant in San Francisco has been working in restaurants for years and finally when she got to own her own restaurant, she said, “I’m going to do this differently.” She stopped paying everyone as independent contractors and made sure everyone was paid as employees and got paid overtime. Over the course of a couple of years she began to provide health care, vacation days, and sick days. Among her restaurant group, she provides the highest wages and the highest benefits, and she has some of the highest profit margins in her whole sector.

So you can do the right thing and do well. She says when you do that, your employee really cares about the restaurant, and there’s not the theft of wine and goods—a common problem in restaurants where people are not paid right and take their pay in weird and unhelpful ways. Again, there are employers like that and we’ve got to be lifting them up.

We have a worker’s center in Ithaca, New York, called the Tompkins Country Worker’s Center that’s created a living-wage certification. They certified 70 businesses in their community that are paying people fairly and justly. We are trying to find ways to honor, respect, and lift up ethical-business centers that are doing the right thing.

SS: It sounds like the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do to because when people earn a living wage they can spend money which helps the economy.

KB: Our message is that when we stop wage theft, it is: first, good for workers and their family; second, good for ethical businesses because it levels the playing field; and third, good for public coffers. If employees are being paid all their wages and employers are paying payroll taxes and workers’ comp and unemployment insurance, that’s good for the public coffers. And finally, it is good for the economy. It stimulates the economy to put wages in the hands of workers. Nothing is clearer for stimulating the economy than making sure workers get paid.

SS: Yesterday the super committee of Congress announced its failure to come to a budget-cutting agreement. We see a lot of dysfunction in Congress, with both political parties at each other’s throat and a seeming inability to solve our problems. Yet when you go out into states, you see people rolling up their sleeves and getting things done. Do you feel hopeful or despair? Or both?

KB: It is much more hopeful when you’re around the country seeing the creative things people are trying and where they’re making progress. A year ago, there was no enforcement agency in the entire state of Florida to help enforce state laws on wages. A few years earlier, the state legislature literally voted out their department of labor. So in Miami they put together a wage-theft bill that created a local wage-theft enforcement agency in the small-business administration, and this last year they helped workers collect $700,000 in back wages. It’s a great thing. Palm Beach County right next door is trying to do the same thing and get their own enforcement agency.

People are responding to the crisis, trying to create new structures and find new ways to protect workers. Yes, I am very encouraged around the country, but certainly less encouraged when I watch Congress. It is disheartening. It seems like the effects of money and politics is showing its ugly head.

SS: Anything else?

KB: If someone wants to get involved in Interfaith Worker Justice and get on our action list, you can go to our website at, and sign up to get our alerts. We also have a very active Facebook page, and we’d love to connect with people at any time.

SS: And your book?

KB: Oh yes, my book. You can get it from any local union bookstore, from Powell’s, from Amazon, from the publisher. It’s called Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid and What We Can Do About It.

SS: You state the problem and how to solve itvery American, right?

KB: That’s right!

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative