Our wage team recently attended the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) wage conference, a biannual opportunity for lawyers who represent employees in wage claims to come together and find out what’s happening with wage and hour cases all around the country. It’s a lot of lawyers in one place doing what they do best – standing on a stage and giving their opinions about everything – but that aside, it tends to be a productive couple of days.
Ultimately, these conferences always leave me feeling equal parts energized and troubled. I like knowing there are other folks out there working on behalf of employees being paid unfairly. But the staggering number of wage updates and cases only bolsters my understanding of the realities American workers face; there wouldn’t be a need for this conference, or the work we do, if employers simply followed the law and paid their employees correctly. Let’s be clear, I love my job and the work I get to do, so I’m not complaining as much as I am reflecting. It’s just that every time I hear about another case, I can’t help but thinking about the individuals who make up the classes we are all working for:
- factory workers whose time is being improperly rounded down to the tune of $100,000 per year of profit for their employers;
- nurses who carry their phones or pagers and answer calls whenever they come because they would never dream of choosing the ability to eat (even during a 12 hour shift) over patient needs even though they aren’t paid for their “lunches”;
- waiters who make $2.33 an hour but whose managers still think they can take a portion of the tips earned every night;
- Amazon employees who have to wait an extra 20 minutes every day, unpaid, to get out of the warehouse and home to their families because Amazon wants to make sure they aren’t stealing;
- employees who are forced to use paid time off (PTO) instead of being paid overtime for hours worked over 40;
- manicurists who actually have to pay their employers to be allowed to work at a nail salon;
- busboys who earn $300/week for working 72 hours over 7 days a week and are afraid to file a claim because they are undocumented; and
- call center workers who are classified as salaried and make a whopping $30,000/year for 50 hours of work per week.
Wage theft victims have faces and lives, dreams and hopes. They have families they leave each day to work for employers who are literally taking money out of employees’ pockets and lining their own. This is the reality of wage theft. It’s happening so frequently and on such a large scale that 200+ lawyers can meet for a full two days and not have enough time to discuss all of the issues they encounter.
I know there are plenty of headlines about the millions of dollars recovered for workers. These are notable “wins” and I am pleased to have been part of some of these cases. But make no mistake, that money is allocated between hundreds, sometimes thousands, of class members and it certainly isn’t making people wealthy. It’s putting some extra money, to which they were legally entitled in the first place, into the bank accounts of working people who use it to pay the mortgage or buy new shoes for their children or help pay off medical bills.
At the end of the conference, I returned to a full voicemail inbox and a seemingly insurmountable number of emails and I know all of my colleagues did as well. There’s solidarity in that though. At the end of the day, despite my heavy heart about the plight of the workers, I know we aren’t alone in fighting for the nurse or the busboy or the factory worker. More importantly though, the voicemails and emails we get represent the individuals who are finally willing to stand up and fight for themselves. All over the country, slowly but surely, workers continue to come forward and give us someone to fight for.
If you or someone you know is paid unfairly by their employer, please contact us to discuss your situation. It only takes a short conversation to determine if a worker may be receiving illegal treatment at work, and we can help workers level the playing field and receive fair, legal treatment.
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