Last week, labor activists in Washington, DC, saw months of hard work pay off as the DC City Council unanimously passed the strongest laws in the country on wage theft and employment discrimination against people with criminal backgrounds. These laws are crucial for individuals and families to achieve economic justice. The wage theft legislation will overwhelmingly affect low-wage workers, while the “ban the box” legislation holds particular value for survivors of domestic violence attempting to reenter the workplace with a criminal background.
Wage theft is all too common in the United States. It occurs when employers fail to pay their workers their promised wages, delay payment on wages or don’t pay them at all. This phenomenon adds up to an estimated $35 billion withheld from millions of workers each year. Over three-fourths of the nation’s population lives paycheck to paycheck, making failure to pay or delayed payment a serious problem for the economic security of millions. DC’s Wage Theft Prevention Act will restructure wage and hour enforcement by increasing penalties for employers who engage in wage theft of all kinds and creating formal hearings for these incidents.
Low-income workers are especially susceptible to paycheck exploitation by employers: in a study by the National Employment Law Project, 26% of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior to when they were surveyed. Women hold approximately two-thirds of low-wage jobs across the nation. In the wake of the recession, sixty percent of women’s job gains during the recovery have been in the ten largest low-wage jobs, which pay less than $10.10 per hour. WOW’s BEST indicators suggest that an adult worker with no children in DC needs to earn at least $18.36 an hour to be economically secure, but DC’s $9.50 per hour minimum wage does not even come close to this.
A poignant example of such exploitation lies in the restaurant industry, where 71 percent of servers are female and are nearly three times more likely to be paid under the poverty line. In most states, these workers can legally be paid $2.13 an hour. Workers in tipped positions like servers are especially vulnerable to wage theft because, though employers are supposed to make up the difference between what their tipped workers make in hourly tips and the state’s minimum wage, over 12% of tipped workers faced theft of tips by their employer. DC’s new anti-wage theft law will raise the stakes for restaurant employers attempting to engage in wage theft, hopefully deterring them from paying unjust wages or no wage at all.
The Fair Criminal Records Screening Act, commonly known as a “ban the box” law, will prohibit employers from asking questions about a person’s criminal record on employment applications, including the checkbox that asks if an applicant has been arrested or convicted for a crime. DC joins 65 other jurisdictions across the country that have implemented “ban the box” measures, and expands on the Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act of 2010 by prohibiting private as well as public employers from discrimination based on criminal or arrest records. Seeing as 10% of DC residents, or 60,000 people, possess a criminal record and that people with a criminal history consistently have high unemployment rates, this law opens doors for millions of potential workers to reenter the workforce and move on with their lives. The law also leverages hefty fines on employers found guilty of employment discrimination and allows for applicants to explain their criminal or arrest backgrounds if they are legally brought up in later hiring rounds.
For survivors of domestic violence, this law can mean getting a much needed job despite a criminal record due to crimes coerced by a abuser or physical retaliation against an abuser out of self-defense. Abusers can manipulate domestic violence scenarios in which dual arrest occurs, especially when they have financial control and can economically intimidate their victims from cooperating with a prosecution. Even after domestic violence has ended, these incidences will remain on survivors’ records unless they are expunged or sealed. The new “ban the box” law will provide survivors with criminal records a better chance at employment and the right to explain past arrest or criminal records that resulted from an abusive partner.