They are among the millions of nameless and faceless people in the American workforce. Those who clear the restaurant tables, wash the dishes and take out the garbage. Mostly black, women or foreign born all sharing one common thread as victims of wage theft through the unscrupulous practices of greedy business owners.
"It could mean not paying overtime. It could mean not giving the breaks that they're due. It could mean requiring you to come early or stay late or otherwise work off the clock. It could mean stealing tips," says Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy.
Recently a rally on the steps of First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young gave voice to what's become an insidious epidemic fueled by the nation's struggling economy. A National Employment Law Project study found in cities, including Memphis, two out of three low-wage workers are not getting paid a minimum wage or overtime. In Tennessee the state Department of Labor cannot collect unpaid wages except in the instance of an employer failing to pay a last paycheck.
Memphian Zorina Bowen, former downtown restaurant worker knows that particular frustration first-hand. She's been trying to get her last check of $1,500 since getting the runaround of broken promises from the owner three years ago.
"Everybody's going to get paid next week. Everybody's going to get paid week after next. There's always a different story. I then finally the last time I asked about the money, she said, okay, you'll have to meet her there at the restaurant. When I was getting ready to come there, she had the manager to call me and tell me. I didn't need to come in. That I was laid off," says Bowen.
Commissioner Mulroy has jumped into the uphill battle as the sponsor of an ordinance to tighten the screws on wage theft abusers.
"What we really need to do is to get an ordinance like the one that was passed in Miami Dade in Florida that will allow the county to enforce this and impose penalties, civil penalties, on those who don't pay low wage workers what they're owed," says Mulroy. "We need to make sure that the County Commission passes this ordinance and really put some teeth in it. Because it's one thing to pass an ordinance, it's another thing to enforce it. So, we don't need lip service. We need some actual action."