Many Low-Wage Workers Denied Pay

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A new report on low-wage workers found that more than two-thirds were paid less than what they were legally owed for the work they did. The report, from the National Employment Law Project, is based on a survey of more than 4,000 workers in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.


It turns out some employers are going to new lengths to avoid paying workers what their owed. In fact, the National Employment Law Project found that two-thirds of low-wage workers were paid less than what they legally earned. This comes from a survey of more than 4,000 workers in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles.

Lisa Chow from member station WNYC in New York has more.

LISA CHOW: Nicole Curry(ph) knows a lot about not getting paid. She's 24 and has worked as a restaurant hostess in Detroit. She says at four different restaurants her paychecks have bounced. And the funny thing was her managers never seemed surprised when she would tell them about it.

Ms. NICOLE CURRY (Restaurant Hostess): The first time that it happened to me I went back to my employer and I asked my manager, I was like, okay, well the check. And she was like, oh, we just didn't have enough money in the account. And I would be like okay, but so, when do we get paid? Well, I don't know. Whenever we get the money in the account in there we'll let you know.

CHOW: Curry says her managers often used the recession as an excuse.

Ms. CURRY: They would say, oh, we really can't afford it right now. And every time my manager would say this to me, I'd be like, so why are you open, like why do you have employees here and you can't afford to pay your employees? Why did you hire a hostess if you couldn't pay me?

CHOW: Nonpayment of wages is on the increase in this recession, according to workers' advocates. And there's evidence that undocumented workers are among the most at risk. Jing Yu Chi(ph) falls into that category. He's 46 and works in construction. He came to the U.S. on a tourist visa on 2001 and has been living in New York City illegally ever since.

Mr. JING YU CHI: (Through translator) There are several employers that owe me money. In total I think I'm owed $10,000. I'd call them repeatedly. We'd set up meetings so I could get paid. And then they wouldn't show up. They disconnect their phones. They'd just disappear.

CHOW: Then there are companies that don't disappear, but they still violate the law by paying less than minimum wage or not paying overtime. Ruth Milkman is a professor of sociology at UCLA and one of the lead authors of the report.

Professor RUTH MILKMAN (Sociology, UCLA): And it has become a kind of business strategy that is, you know, increasingly widespread in this sector of the labor market because if you are caught the penalties are very minimal. They're just considered a cost of doing business by some of these employers and the chances of being apprehended are very low. And employers know this.

CHOW: A number of those employers are themselves second-generation immigrants in the major cities. That irony is not lost on Amy Carroll. She's an attorney with an advocacy group called Make the Road New York, and she has sued employers on behalf of workers.

Ms. AMY CARROLL (Attorney, Make the Road New York): So I've had employers say well I learned to run my business this way when I used to work as a waiter or as a busboy at a restaurant down the street. And my point is, you know, I'm sorry that your rights were violated. It's too bad that it's so long ago we can't do anything about it. But as a business owner, you have to take this step to figure out what your obligations are.

CHOW: Enforcing those obligations often falls to states around the country. Terry Gerstein works for New York's Labor Department. She says state investigators are trying to be more proactive by going after industries known for high violation rates, instead of waiting for workers to come forward and complain.

Ms. TERRY GERSTEIN (New York Labor Department): There's a lot of violations but, you know, we've been trying these new methods. And I also think that there's some time lag between when you get tough and when you see the effects of it.

CHOW: Gerstein says New York is revisiting previous wage law violators, and nationwide the U.S. Department of Labor says it's hiring an additional 250 investigators. But both state and federal authorities face a challenge. There are more than 1.6 million low-wage workers in just Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Chow, in New York.

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