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OR Lawmakers Asked to Do More to Fight Wage Theft

Recent investigations in Oregon have led to recovery of $2.7 million for construction workers on state-funded projects. One group says it's the tip of a wage-theft iceberg. (greyerbaby/morguefile)
January 11. 2016
Recent investigations in Oregon have led to recovery of $2.7 million for construction workers on state-funded projects. One group says it's the tip of a wage-theft iceberg. (greyerbaby/morguefile)

SALEM, Ore. - Some Oregon workers aren't getting paid what they are owed, and at a committee hearing in Salem this week, state lawmakers will get a first look at upcoming legislation to curb wage theft.

Just since Thanksgiving, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) has announced settlements recovering $2.7 million in unpaid wages for construction workers on state-funded projects. But Michael Dale, executive director, Northwest Workers Justice Project, says BOLI has less staff and a bigger workload than in the 1990s.

He says workers in many fields, particularly in rural Oregon, can't always get the help they need if they aren't being paid fairly – or paid at all.

"The notion that somehow now, the problem is solved – no," says Dale. "Wage theft continues to be a pervasive and broad problem that needs attention. BOLI needs resources, and private workers need to have the ability to enforce their wage claims themselves."

He says the proposal includes giving workers better access to their payroll records, without having to file a lawsuit or a wage claim with BOLI, making it a felony to not pay prevailing wages on jobs, and requiring companies that have had wage-theft problems to post bonds.

Dale says wage theft takes many forms, from refusing to pay, to classifying workers as independent contractors to keep from paying overtime, to asking people to work extra hours "off the clock." He points out that wage theft affects not just individuals, but entire communities.

"Nobody spends the money that they didn't get paid in the grocery store," says Dale. "And it's a problem for other employers, because if an employer is trying to do the right thing, they have to compete with people that may not have the same cost structure because they're not paying their workers right. And that's bad for the economy."

He adds the ideas in the draft legislation have had some backing when they've come up before in Salem in different bills, and are being combined to help get them through the short session in February.

The hearing is Wed., Jan. 13, at 2:00 p.m. in the Senate Workforce and General Government Committee, at the State Capitol.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR