The new unit will target people who exploit workers across the Commonwealth.
RICHMOND-A new unit of the Virginia Attorney General’s office will tackle wage theft, payroll fraud, and other labor rights issues. Attorney General Mark Herring launched the Worker Protection Unit earlier this month. He said it will be made up of attorneys and prosecutors focused on “investigating, stopping, and prosecuting individuals and businesses who unlawfully engage in worker exploitation.”
The unit, the first of its kind in Virginia, is unique in a state that has been consistently ranked as one of the worst in the nation for labor rights.
The state’s motivation for pursuing these cases isn’t entirely altruistic: the press release quotes a report from the Joint Audit and Legislative Review Commission, which states that worker misclassification “lowered Virginia’s state income tax collections as much as $28 million per year, in addition to the reduction in pay and benefits suffered by workers.”
What is Wage Theft?
Wage theft is a broad category of labor violations that can include employers paying below the minimum wage, stealing tips from employees, asking employees to work “off the clock,” and failing to grant overtime.
The Economic Policy Institute, a union-affiliated think tank, reports that wage theft – one of the most common labor violations in the United States – costs workers billions of dollars each year. In many localities wage theft totals far more than robberies.
“The prevalence of wage theft rivals and even surpasses other categories of theft that receive considerably more public attention and law enforcement resources,” writes Nicole Hallett, an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. According to her 2018 article in the Yale Law and Policy Review, wage theft is something of an invisible crisis in the American economy.
“Like many social ills, wage theft has flourished in part because it has existed in the darkness,” she writes.
According to Herring, that was one of the factors that made the Worker Protection Unit necessary. “Managers and owners hope that workers won’t notice that they’re being stolen from, or will simply be too afraid to complain because they don’t want to lose their job or worse,” he said.
The Union Response
But Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays said the taskforce was still a step in the right direction, “We are hopeful that the unit will enforce current worker safety and workplace standards and assist in developing stronger workplace protections for Virginians.”
The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the United States, with membership in their affiliated unions totalling 12.5 million nationwide.
Union membership has long been on the decline in the United States, thanks in part to laws like Virginia’s “Right to Work,” which effectively prevents unions from setting up “union shops” where membership is a requirement of employment. However, 2020 was the first year since 2010 in which membership in unions rose both nationwide and in Virginia.
“Right to Work”, on the other hand, remains enshrined in Virginia law. Earlier this year, Democratic leadership, who control both the House and the Senate, rejected an attempt by Delegate Lee Carter (D-Prince William) to bring the matter to a vote.
Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.