Step aside, COVID-19. This summer’s news headlines have been dominated by the police killings of several unarmed black men, including George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. In the wake of these men’s deaths, protests rocked the country for weeks afterward. These tragic and shocking cases prompted Americans to have a long-awaited discussion about discrimination against non-white people in policing and the criminal justice system.
Our law firm agrees this is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed with legislative and social action. But race discrimination doesn’t only occur at the hands of police. At Tittle & Perlmuter, where attorney Scott Perlmuter focuses on wage and hour law, we know that minorities, especially black and Latino people, face high rates of discrimination in the workplace. Employment discrimination is a quiet and persistent form of racial injustice in America.
Minimum Wage Violations
Across the country, demands for a higher minimum wage have finally resulted in better pay for some workers in cities like Chicago. However, many employers continue to ignore minimum wage laws and other parts of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), resulting in billions of dollars in lost wages each year.
“Fully 26 percent of workers in our sample were paid less than the legally required minimum wage in the previous work week,” the National Employment Law Project wrote after conducting an extensive study in 2009. “These minimum wage violations were not trivial in magnitude: 60 percent of workers were underpaid by more than $1 per hour.” Countless others were forced to work off the clock, denied overtime pay, or were ordered to work through the lunch breaks which they were entitled to by law.
A more recent study, conducted in 2019 by Policy Matters Ohio, found similar results, and found a disparate impact on African-Americans and Latinos. For instance, in 2019, black people comprised about 10 percent of the Ohio workforce but were 16 percent of wage theft victims. Hispanic workers, who made up 3 percent of Ohio’s workforce, made up nearly 6 percent of victims. Across the board, women were far more likely to be wage theft victims than men: 62 percent of people denied pay for some of the work they performed were women. The intersection of race and class discrimination meant low-income women of color were hit the hardest.
Low Wage, High Violation Industries
The Department of Labor’s statistics on wage and hour violations show that jobs most likely to employ black and Hispanic workers have the highest rates of violations. In 2019, the DOL identified the fifteen largest “low wage, high violation industries.” Latino workers make up just 17.6 percent of the American workforce but are represented at nearly twice that rate in construction work. This physically demanding occupation is considered the sixth-ranking “low wage, high violation” industry. If that sounds bad, consider agriculture, an industry that denied more than $6 million in wages to employees in 2019. This top-ranked “low wage, high violation” occupation is 34% Latino. Black Americans make up 12.3 percent of the workforce but 19 percent of all day care workers. (And nearly all of those workers are women.) Child care was ranked number five on the list of high-violation industries.
Some workers don’t realize they are entitled to things like overtime pay and paid lunch breaks. However, the National Employment Law Project found that many of them do indeed know they are being cheated out of their wages, but don’t report it. Many fear retaliation: “One in five workers in our sample reported that they had made a complaint to their employer in the last year,” NELP reported. “Of those, 43 percent experienced one or more forms of illegal retaliation from their employer or supervisor. For example, employers fired or suspended workers, threatened to call immigration authorities, or threatened to cut workers’ hours or pay.”
“Another 20 percent of workers reported that they did not make a complaint to their employer during the past 12 months,” NELP continued, “even though they had experienced a serious problem such as dangerous working conditions or not being paid the minimum wage. Half were afraid of losing their job, 10 percent were afraid they would have their hours or wages cut, and 36 percent thought it would not make a difference.”
Labor Violations Need More Attention
Minimum wage violations are particularly harmful, since employees earn so little to begin with. If their employers pay even less than the low rate required in most states, it could plunge a worker into homelessness or hunger.
As we debate how to address racial profiling and police brutality, we should also address the persistent racial inequalities in the workforce. All Americans deserve to be paid every penny they rightfully earned on the job.