Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 | 2:06 a.m.
A new survey of nearly 4,400 low-wage earners in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago found alarming evidence that the nation’s labor laws are violated by employers far more frequently than previously thought.
The report, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” co-authored by professors from UCLA, the University of Illinois and Cornell and Rutgers universities, found that one-quarter of those surveyed had been paid less than minimum wage the previous week. Among those individuals, 60 percent were underpaid by more than $1 an hour.
Researchers found that three-quarters of the respondents who had worked more than 40 hours the prior week were not paid the legally required overtime.
The study also documented high percentages of violations involving meal breaks, workers’ compensation and employer retaliation.
Contacted by The New York Times for reaction to the report, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis aptly said: “There is no excuse for the disregard of federal labor standards — especially those designed to protect the neediest among us.”
Solis vowed to add 250 wage-and-hour investigators to the Labor Department, a move that is clearly warranted based on the study.
It is bad enough that the federal minimum wage has been ridiculously low in this nation for several decades, especially for adults with children to feed. Paying people less than minimum wage while denying them proper overtime pay is unconscionable.
The Times reported Wednesday that many small businesses say they are forced to violate wage laws to remain competitive. If so, that also warrants federal investigation. Businesses should not have to break any labor laws to compete.
Part of the reason why employers can exploit low-wage workers can be explained by looking at the demographics of those who participated in the survey, all of whom were at least 18. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents were illegal immigrants, who typically are more vulnerable to exploitation than other workers.
The United States is not a Third World country, though, and should not tolerate employers who have shown no regard for the law.