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I-Team: Wage theft in Massachusetts is widespread in some industries

I-Team: Wage theft in Massachusetts is widespread in some industries
I-Team: Wage theft in Massachusetts is widespread in some industries 04:11

BOSTON - It's an illegal practice that costs workers a fair wage for a fair day's work. Union officials call wage theft an epidemic, with employers in some industries not paying workers what they are legally owed. And the people most affected are the most vulnerable among us.

Andre Rossetti came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago and began painting. He says he loves the job but was not always paid for the work he did. Telling the I-Team, he would sometimes work more than 55 hours a week but would not be paid overtime or time and a half.

Not paying overtime or paying less than minimum wage is called wage theft. The Attorney General's Fair Labor Division says it gets thousands of complaints a year, more than it can handle about the illegal practice.

"It's stealing," said Assistant Attorney General Lauren Moran the Division Chief of the Fair Labor Division. "If you work and didn't get paid your employer is stealing from you. It's the same as if they went into your wallet and took your money from you."

The AFL-CIO calls the problem widespread especially in the construction, retail and hospitality industries where workers can be easily taken advantage of. Bridget Quinn, the Legislative Director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, says it impacts, "predominately low-income workers, people of color, women, and immigrants. They get very little back from recovered wages."

A CBS News analysis of data shows from 2015, the Attorney General's Office filed 2,419 wage theft cases and got workers more than $48 million back in pay. But the I-Team found that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Rodrigo Badaro is a union organizer with IUPAT/DC 35. He says much of wage theft is hard to measure because it is so underreported. He told the I-Team in these cases, a lot of folks won't speak up, because they are afraid to lose their jobs.

The Wage Theft Coalition estimates Massachusetts workers are owed a billion dollars in pay a year. That translates into $100 million in lost revenue for the Commonwealth.

At the Attorney General's wage theft clinic at Suffolk University Law School, dozens of workers with questions about their pay lined up to get free legal advice from private lawyers.

Employers found to be violating the law do get penalized. A report from the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office shows in fiscal year 2022, the AG ordered employers to pay $7.5 million to employees and $4.2 million in penalties, but that's a drop in the bucket.

Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Cambridge) says he wants to put more teeth in the law. Massachusetts already has some of the strongest wage theft laws in the country. DiDomenico wants to strengthen enforcement and is proposing legislation that would give the Attorney General more tools to go after bad employers including the power to issue a stop work order and hold the lead contractor liable for subcontractors who cheat their workers.

"Finally for the first time we are going to have people who are in charge of the contracts, they are going to be responsible for the non-payment of any overtime costs, non-paying of any salaries," DiDomenico said.

Wage theft has also captured the attention of the new incoming Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who pledged to make it a priority in her inauguration speech.

The federal government also wants to crack down on the practice. U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh is asking for more funding to educate workers about their rights and hire more investigators to handle claims.

Andre Rossetti says his wage theft claim is under investigation by the Attorney General. He's hoping to recoup about $10,000 in wages he says he is owed.

If you believe your employer owes you money - the Attorney General holds free legal clinics monthly at Suffolk University Law School. The next clinic is February 6th.  

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