IT'S HARD FOR an employer to stoop any lower than paying its workers with bad checks, or refusing to pay them outright -- all the more so when the employees are low-wage immigrant day laborers poorly versed in insisting on their rights. Yet recent studies from New York, Los Angeles and, now, the Washington area have shown that cheating immigrants out of their pay is a workplace pandemic. A staggering 58 percent of day workers in the District and its suburbs report having been swindled by employers, according to a recent study by the University of California at Los Angeles. That is outrageous enough. It is equally outrageous that until now, local authorities here and in most of the country have done virtually nothing about it. Indeed, in most places the official response to day laborers who did a job and then got stiffed has been: "Tough luck."
Deadbeat employers have benefited from the neglect of understaffed, overworked state labor departments and from the inattention of local jurisdictions that lack any effective means of enforcing even the weak laws on the books. Nonpayment of wages has been treated in most places as a civil rather than a criminal matter, subject to light fines, if that. In Virginia it is a misdemeanor (read: unworthy of local police attention) for an employer to pay its workers with bad checks -- no matter how many times it happens or what the amounts. In Maryland Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. thinks so little of the problem, and of the rights of low-income immigrant workers, that he is abolishing the office within the state Labor Department that would enforce payment-of-wages laws. It's a disgraceful step that sends the wrong message at the wrong time.
Still, as reports of the routine exploitation and abuse of workers reach a critical mass, there are tentative signs of change. In parts of California, New York and Texas, local authorities have been more aggressively confronting scofflaw contractors and other employers who withhold wages. In Virginia a law sponsored by Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) takes effect this week that will make it a felony for employers to write a bad check to workers for more than $200. Under another new law sponsored by Mr. Ebbin, employers will be guilty of a felony if they fraudulently refuse to pay wages totaling $10,000 or more or are convicted on a second offense of failing to pay any amount of wages. Prosecutors in Prince George's County, in an innovative use of an existing statute inspired by the lack of state enforcement, have brought a handful of felony charges against deadbeat employers under a law that forbids theft of services.
Though admirable, the efforts underway to compel employers to do the right thing are more symbolic than muscular. The immigrant day-labor workforce in this region is booming, and so are the rip-offs to which it is subjected. Federal law requires that employees be paid for their work regardless of their immigration status. Police and prosecutors' offices, preoccupied with property and violent crime, have so far paid little attention to a politically voiceless community. That needs to change. Officials should be judged by what they are doing to crack down on sleazy employers, and be held to account.