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Workers' Advocates Urge Ore. Lawmakers to Tackle Wage Theft

Three bills in the Oregon Legislature target wage theft, which is a multi-million-dollar problem in some industries. (torbakhopper/Flickr)
Three bills in the Oregon Legislature target wage theft, which is a multi-million-dollar problem in some industries. (torbakhopper/Flickr)
February 15, 2017

SALEM, Ore. – Claims from wage violations over the past decade in Oregon total at least $45 million, and that could just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of stolen wages.

Kate Suisman, coordinator of campaigns and alliances for the Northwest Workers' Justice Project, says wage theft is much more widespread than the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries numbers suggest.

Workers often fear retaliation for reporting that they weren't paid. Suisman hopes House Bill 2181 will provide them some protections from retaliation.

"If an employee makes a wage claim and then, within 90 days, something bad happens to them at work, there's a presumption that it was retaliatory for the wage claim," she said.

She says employers would be able to rebuke this claim. A second part of the bill would give workers the option of receiving a reason in writing for being terminated.

Suisman says this would provide documentation so that employers couldn't change their story in the event of legal or administrative action.

Two other bills in the Oregon Legislature also target wage theft.

House Bill 2169 would limit attorney fees for employees in cases where a wage violation is proven. And House Bill 2180 would allow the state to put a lien on employers' real and personal property for unpaid wages.

Suisman says this measure has gotten pushback from the business community for being too hard on employers - although it's modeled after a Wisconsin law.

"The Wisconsin law has been there for decades, and it's not been so onerous on employers," she added. "It's just given workers that right to actually collect money that they're owed."

Wage theft takes many forms, from stolen tips and unpaid overtime, to refusing to allow breaks or misclassifying workers as independent contractors to get out of providing benefits.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries found in the most recent 12-month period, transportation workers filed the most claims, followed by construction and restaurant and bar workers.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR