The Shutdown Shows Why Progressives Need to Make Labor-Law Enforcement a Top Priority

The back of a person in a TSA jacket as they look at packaged food on a table.
A TSA employee looks at food at a Food Bank for NYC event for federal workers affected by the government shutdown at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

They can’t pay the rent. They’re going to food pantries. Heading to pawn shops to sell their stuff. Their kids are worried. And the next payday, this coming Friday, seems certain to bring another painful reminder of their depleted bank accounts.

A whopping 800,000 federal employees are suffering deeply from the pointless cruelty of the government shutdown, along with legions of workers for government contractors. Some of them are furloughed, and others are required to show up for work. None of them are being paid. And in a strange twist, the ones called back to work for free generally can’t even receive unemployment benefits.

On a human dignity level, it’s an affront for people to be treated as pawns in this way, and it’s a further insult to so devalue the critical work of our nation’s public servants. On a more concrete level, it’s a tremendous hardship for people not to be paid any wages at all for more than a month. It’s unclear how many of these workers were already forced to live paycheck to paycheck, but based on data, it seems likely that the number is not insignificant. A Federal Reserve report just last year found that 4 in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected $400 expense, either couldn’t cover it or would have to sell something or borrow money.

For a large number of workers in this country, though, what federal employees are experiencing now is a fairly typical indignity and hardship. Too often, workers—especially low-wage and immigrant workers—are paid only a fraction of what they’re owed, or are not paid at all for their work.

When I was in the New York Attorney General’s Office, we handled a number of cases in which wages were not paid to workers. Several such cases involved home health agencies that failed to pay their workers for weeks and even months of labor. These caregivers helped patients who were elderly, sick, or disabled, bathing them, preparing their food, helping them with toileting, and changing bedpans. The details varied: One employer recorded a YouTube video promising to pay the money owed to workers and hired new aides even as he failed to pay existing ones; another employer created false tax documents showing wages that were never actually paid; a third threatened to fire workers after the labor department showed up to investigate.

There were restaurant workers who worked hard to set up a flashy new Manhattan eatery before its grand opening: stiffed. There were the landscapers on Long Island, underpaid for years and then not paid anything for their last three weeks of work. The unpaid Queens construction workers doing myriad jobs on residential homes. And countless day laborers who regularly struggled to be paid.

Why did these people keep showing up? For the same reasons federal workers keep going in, even without a paycheck. First off: They needed the job. People are usually reluctant to leave even a bad job, because it’s still better than no job. And just as many federal workers are deeply committed to the mission of their jobs, many of the low-wage workers in our cases were also mission-driven, like home health aides devoted to the patients in their care.

The cases we handled all took place in New York, which for years has had among the strongest labor laws, most aggressive enforcement agencies, and highest union density in the country. How many similar and worse situations emerge every day in other states, including those with less worker-protective landscapes?

A 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute of wage violations in the 10 most populous states found that 2.4 million workers in those states lose $8 billion annually to minimum wage violations, with per worker losses averaging $3,300 annually, amounting to nearly a quarter of their earned wages. According to the study, nearly one-fifth of low-wage workers experienced minimum wage violations. Such violations can include, for example, uncompensated work time off the clock, being paid a weekly rate that doesn’t add up to the minimum wage, having illegal deductions made from their pay, or having hours shaved from time cards. Minimum wage violations aren’t the same as being stiffed altogether, of course, but losing out on a quarter of earned wages surely has an agonizing impact.

Serious workplace infractions by employers usually attract limited attention from public policy experts and especially government budget offices, perhaps in part because of who is affected: immigrants, people of color, low-wage workers. I’ve often wondered why policymakers sometimes don’t seem to take this problem seriously. Perhaps it’s because low-income people are struggling in so many ways—education, housing, just surviving at all—that it may seem like not getting paid for work is just another normal challenge of being a low-wage worker in the United States. The shutdown is offering a new and more viscerally immediate face to the national problem of work without pay, but there’s little reason that American empathy toward unpaid national park rangers and TSA agents shouldn’t extend to ordinary working stiffs who get stiffed.

Being paid for your labor is the most elemental workplace right, and it’s a serious hardship when it doesn’t happen. It’s demeaning and demoralizing, and it causes ongoing stress and lasting damage for workers and their families. It’s outrageous that people would ever have to work for free, whether they’re locked-out federal employees or low-wage construction, home health, or restaurant workers. And it’s hardly sufficient redress to get paid at some much later date the money you were already owed in the first place.

Some legislators are working on short-term solutions for the current crisis for federal employees. A council member in D.C. proposed emergency legislation to protect both federal employees and contractors from eviction and foreclosure during the shutdown, and more than two dozen U.S. senators are pushing for legislation to protect government employees from eviction, foreclosure, repossession of their cars, and penalties for late payment for bills or student loans.

These steps are urgently needed, but the real answer, of course, is for the president to end his shutdown immediately. Our federal government shouldn’t be just one more wage cheat, and the American people shouldn’t be complicit. Federal workers should get their pay, as well as some interest and damages—and workers for government contractors should be compensated, too, as Rep. Ayanna Pressley has argued.

What’s the solution for everyone else? For the home health aides, construction workers, restaurant servers, and others who don’t get paid what they’re owed? We have a lot of work to do to create a culture of labor-law compliance, but the first step is to have a broader societal understanding that degraded labor standards and violations of workers’ rights have real repercussions in the lives of families and communities.

Once that happens, actually improved legal and legislative accountability should follow. State and federal legislators should pass stronger penalties for stiffing workers. More state attorneys general and criminal prosecutors should take on this issue, since wage theft actually involves more money than other forms of theft. Our overburdened, under-resourced labor enforcement agencies should finally get the funding they need to make sure that hard work actually pays. Most importantly, we should ensure that all workers can exercise their bargaining rights together so that everyone, from park rangers to day laborers, can have a meaningful voice at work.