Consumer Fraud

New Orleans is ‘Ground Zero’ of national wage theft epidemic

Hurricane Katrina, a powerful storm surge, and a system of inadequate levies teamed up in 2005 to create an unprecedented level of disaster in the United States. In the wake that followed, New Orleans (along with many other coastal communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) resembled a sea of destruction. New Orleans relied heavily on day laborers to clean up, repair, and rebuild. Sadly, however, recent surveys found that 80% of the Hispanic workers had been cheated out of compensation.

The rampant injustice plaguing manual laborers compelled New Orleans City Council President Arnie Fielkow to promote an ordinance that would make wage theft a criminal act. Fielkow announced his support of the measure on the steps of City Hall.

Research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Alabama, revealed that laborers in New Orleans suffered more from wage theft and other forms of abuse than anywhere else in the Southeastern U.S.

The SPLC report – Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South, “documents the human toll of failed policies that relegate millions of people to an underground economy, where they are beyond the protection of the law,” said Mary Bauer, author of the report and director of the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project.

“Workplace abuses and racial profiling are rampant in the South,” Bauer said.

According to the Times-Picayune, Councilman Fielkow promised to hold hearings on the issue of wage theft later this month. Fielkow also added that he has a panel of legal experts reviewing current laws to see how they can be improved, saying he seeks an ordinance “with teeth.”

Unless they are somehow connected to an advocacy group, many Latino workers in New Orleans have little to no recourse in recovering stolen wages. Workers who complain to authorities are often reported to immigration officials.

The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor is in charge of enforcing Fair Labor Standards laws, including cracking down on wage theft. However, last year, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Wage and Hour Division’s enforcement of FLSA laws dropped to record lows in the past decade.

Most abused by employers were FLSA regulations guaranteeing minimum wage and overtime compensation. Abuse of the laws grew while enforcement of the laws shrank, creating what wage theft activist Kim Bobo called a “national crisis at this moment in our nation” to the tune of $19 billion per year in unpaid overtime alone.

Interfaith Worker Justice, a worker advocacy organization founded by Bobo, held its annual 2009 Leadership Summit at Tulane University in New Orleans earlier this week. Highlights of the 3-day program included seminars devoted to faith and labor laws, immigration issues, and the wage theft crisis.