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Wage Theft: Workers in Pennsylvania face uphill battle trying to get money they are owed

Wage Theft: Workers in Pennsylvania face uphill battle trying to get money they are owed
Wage Theft: Workers in Pennsylvania face uphill battle trying to get money they are owed 01:03

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- It's theft without a gun or any weapon at all and the victims often don't even know they've been "robbed." Every year, working people across the country are victims of wage theft to the tune of billions of dollars.

In local cases, getting any money owed you is an uphill battle, especially here in Pennsylvania.

Even in this current economic climate, construction companies continue to build in our region, promising workers good pay and benefits.

But the carpenters' union alleges that isn't happening at an $80 million, 377-unit project in the Strip District called Brewers Block, a charge the co-general contractor denies. 

"Right now, they have multiple contractors in there that we know about that are using an exploited workforce and they're not paying taxes to the city," Steven Mazza, of the Greater PA Council of Carpenters, said.

The union, which is holding daily protests at the job site, accuses the co-general contractor, RDC, of hiring subcontractors, who they say underpay their workers with under-the-table cash, providing no health benefits and paying no taxes.

However, RDC maintains taxes are paid and all workers are well-compensated with pay and benefits.

In a statement, RDC's CEO said, "The project employs hundreds of construction workers; most work for large subcontractors that have been in business for many years including many union, minority and women-owned businesses with impeccable reputations. Everyone working on the project is well compensated and exceed state and federal employment requirements."

RDC claims the union is just upset some work has gone to non-union members.

Similar allegations against other businesses are examples of what is known as wage theft, impacting those who can least afford it and often feel powerless to claim what they feel is rightfully theirs.

"Most people don't have enough money saved up for a $400 emergency," James Kunz III, of the PA Foundation for Fair Contracting, said. "So, most workers don't even speak out against it, and they take what they can get and deal with it because they can't afford to lose their job."

Cases here in Pittsburgh show wage theft to be pervasive across many industries, including food service, where restaurant servers make as little as $2.13 an hour; and therefore, rely heavily on tips.

Fourteen months ago, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered the operators of the Provision PGH, a restaurant that was inside Federal Galley on the North Side, to pay their workers $42,000 in back pay for forcing them to split tip money with managers, supervisors and other workers who generally don't get tips.

In June, it ordered Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District to pay $39,000 to dozens of workers for the same thing.

Meanwhile, in August, a federal court judge ordered the Whitehall-based home healthcare agency, Everest, to pay $1.4 million to its 218 workers for denying them overtime wages and manipulating records to hide wage theft.

Everest says it's complying with the court order and paying its workers back.

Both Provision PGH and Wigle Whiskey also reimbursed their employees, with Wigle Whiskey attributing the lapses to a misunderstanding of the law. 

But resolutions like this are the exception.

Most complaints involve individual workers who are denied overtime payments or aren't given their final weeks' pay. The amounts generally aren't big enough to hire a lawyer and fight it, but are devastating, nonetheless.

"Losing two weeks or a month's worth of pay is a really big deal for people who are living paycheck to paycheck," labor attorney Joe Pometto said.

Their recourse is to file a lost wage claim form with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor, which says it's been able to recover lost wages in roughly 45% to 55% of the cases.

But a local labor attorney says experience tells him that's not true.

"They either don't get a response, the response takes too long, or even when the state gets on the case, they don't see actual relief," Pometto said.

Pometto and Kunz hope now that Josh Shapiro is in the Governor's office, he will increase the number of state investigators to resolve these claims and take an aggressive stance against wage theft.

As Attorney General, Gov. Shapiro prosecuted the largest wage theft case ever in Pennsylvania winning a $20 million judgement against state highway builder, Hawbaker Construction, which was accused of withholding money for pensions and healthcare and pocketing it instead.

Hawbaker denied wrongdoing, claiming state and federal regulators had reviewed its practices for years and the company believed it was following all laws.

"We have a new administration that will take this stuff seriously because they worked in enforcement," Kunz said.

 Meanwhile, it's possible you could be owed wages without even realizing it.

To see if there's money waiting for you, you can find a link to the Department of Labor's searchable database along with an app to help you track your hours. Click here for that link.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of a Pittsburgh restaurant cited by the U.S. Department of Labor for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Labor, "The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division determined Provision PGH LLC, operator of Provision PGH at the Federal Galley, violated the FLSA by claiming a tip credit and keeping tips to share with employees not eligible to participate in a tip pool." 

The original article identified the restaurant only as Federal Galley, not Provision PGH at the Federal Galley. In a statement, Federal Galley told KDKA that "the impacted individuals were employees from Provision PGH not Federal Galley, and the matter was between Provision PGH and the Department of Labor."

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