Wage Theft?  Or is Life Theft the Bigger Issue?

Many if not most of us have done it, we’ve worked through our lunch, worked through our breaks, started working before our shift, continued working after hours.  In some areas we may be compensated for the extra hours, but in many of our work areas we are working off the clock and working for free.    In our jobs we are often put in an impossible situation: We are told that we can’t work overtime, yet we are given workloads that simply are not doable in a 40 hour week.  If we don’t work overtime, we don’t get our work done.  This puts us at risk of being disciplined for not meeting department “standards”.  Yet we are afraid to request overtime pay because we are worried we will be questioned or disciplined for not completing our work within the regular work hours.  So we often silently work extra hours that we are not being paid for. It is wrong and in most cases, it is illegal to not pay us for the time we work.  This is what is called “wage theft”.  Just as one example, if we work through our 15 minute paid breaks every day, in a year’s time we will have worked 130 hours for free.   In addition, many Hennepin County workers are not using earned vacation hours because of the workload and feeling they can’t take time off.  Workers have hit the vacation accumulation limit, meaning they are also no longer earning vacation hours for their hours of work. Wage theft can take many forms.  The estimated price of wage theft, in all its forms, is that it costs American workers more than $30 billion a year. To put this in perspective, in 2012, all of the burglaries, robberies, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts in the nation cost their victims less than $14 billion. 

But there is even possibly a larger issue here, what one worker refers to as “life theft”. In areas where we are being paid overtime or comp time for working additional hours, workers are still being cheated.  Time spent working after hours is cheating us out of our free, non-work time.  It is cheating us out of our family time, social time, relaxation, and time to do the other things that are important to us.  As many workers have expressed, it causes extreme duress and stress in both our work and personal lives.    

The issue is not our problem as workers, and we should not be forced to pay for it.  The issue is that there are simply not enough work hours to complete the work we are given. The issue is there are not enough front-line positions to meet the needs that Hennepin County is committed to meeting. Everyone suffers when we don’t have adequate time to do our work- we suffer, and the communities we serve suffer as well.  Imagine the incredible work we could do for those we serve, if we only had the appropriate number of staff to do it.  One has to wonder why Hennepin County keeps adding management layer upon management layer, when there are clearly not enough front line workers to do the most important work of Hennepin County.   May 1 or May Day is celebrated around the world as “International Worker’s Day”.  Although it is barely recognized in the United States- it was in Chicago that “International Worker’s Day” was born, after the fight that won U.S. workers the right to an 8 hour day.  This struggle continues to be relevant today, as we see our right to an 8 hour day being stripped away.   In Hennepin County many of us have flexible work hours meaning we might work more than 8 hours in a day to work less another day, but the idea is the same.  We should only be given the amount of work that is doable in a 40 hour week or 80 hour pay period.   

We, the workers, are the ones who make this county work.  We do very difficult jobs, often in very difficult situations.  And we want to do the best for the individuals and communities we serve.  But our good work and good will should not be taken advantage of by our employer.  We have the right to be paid for absolutely every minute that we work.  We have the right to be able to leave our work behind, at the end of our work hours.  And we have the right to be able to use our hard-earned benefits.  So let’s call for an end to cheating us out of wages and cheating us out of our lives.  We deserve better! ~ AFSCME Local 34