Down and Out

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

LOW-WAGE WORKERS in American cities -- busboys, child-care providers, textile workers, dishwashers, stockroom clerks, groundskeepers, security guards and the like -- comprise an underclass seen practically everywhere but not much heard from. In many cities, large majorities in such jobs are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. Their relative voicelessness contributes to a pattern of workplace abuse whose pervasiveness has nearly lost the power to shock. It shouldn't.

A new report by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment paints a disturbing picture of the treatment to which those workers are subjected. Based on a survey last year of almost 4,400 low-wage employees in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the report describes workplaces in which violations of basic rights are the norm and where workers' attempts to complain are met with retribution.

Two-thirds of those surveyed had suffered some form of wage violation. Some had been paid significantly less than the prevailing minimum wage; many had worked overtime without being paid at the required overtime rate. Others were simply not paid at all for hours worked outside of their regular shifts. Those who were seriously hurt on the job often were given no recourse: Just 8 percent who experienced an injury filed a workers' compensation claim, and workers' compensation insurance paid medical costs for only 6 percent of the injured employees.

The staggering gap between what is promised by law and what is delivered in fact is a national shame visited upon society's most vulnerable and least educated. Women, immigrants and people of color suffered disproportionately from violations; undocumented Hispanic women reported the most frequent cases of workplace abuse. Employees unlucky enough to work in the garment industry or in a private home were subjected to more frequent violations than those who worked construction.

Almost 70 percent of the so-called front-line workers surveyed in the study were foreign born, and more than half of those were undocumented immigrants. Their status invites exploitation from unprincipled employers, who gain an unfair advantage over competitors by stiffing their own workforce.

The solutions for such injustice include updated legal standards and more vigorous government monitoring of workplaces. But until undocumented employees are granted equal status through wide-ranging reform in the nation's broken immigration laws, equal protection under the law will remain a pipe dream for millions of workers.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company