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An article in the business section of The New York Times last month put the spotlight on how some companies regularly cheat their workers.

An example cited was two delivery services — Instacart and DoorDash — that deliver packages and merchandise like groceries to your homes for a fee. Both companies have come under fire for taking the tips customers voluntarily add to their bills for the courier and applying them instead to the employee's minimum pay.

In other words, if a courier is guaranteed a minimum of $10 for the delivery and the customer adds a $1 tip, the tip is considered part of the pay. Instacart winds up paying the worker $9 plus his $1 tip when, in fact, the worker should have received the minimum $10 and the $1 tip. Instacart, incidentally, is valued at $7 billion.

Outraged workers, convinced that Instacart was unfairly taking dollars from their paychecks, have stirred such an outcry that the service has announced it will change its policy and let the workers keep the tips.

That victory for the deliverers is the latest in a string of successful pressure campaigns by workers in the so-called gig economy. Drivers for the ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber recently won a minimum wage in New York City after months of agitating.

But the gig economy isn't the only segment where wage theft takes place. It's estimated that ruthless employers take about $50 billion from workers every year. A study by the Economic Policy Institute in 2014 insisted the figure was more than $280 billion.

Obviously, the practice occurs in Wisconsin and Dane County too. Taking the $50 billion figure and extrapolating the numbers means that it's likely $1 billion is missing from employees' wages each year in the state of Wisconsin, while Dane County workers could be shorted more than $80 million a year.

That's why the nonprofit Worker Justice Wisconsin was formed. It's a combination of what was the Workers' Rights Center and the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice and it has doubled-down on reaching out to workers who may be getting shorted on their earnings. The pity is that many of those who become victims either don't know what they can do or are afraid to step forward for fear of losing their jobs altogether.

It's easy to see why. Many who get shortchanged are the most vulnerable among us. It's estimated that the victims of wage theft are mostly low-income workers, especially minorities. Some 62.9 percent are Latino, 18.2 percent white, and 10.4 percent African-American.

Less than three years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice found that two dozen employers, mostly in hotels and restaurants, stole $700,000 from employees in the Dane County area.

And how was it done?

There are several ways, the DOJ's investigation revealed.

They include paying workers less than the legal minimum wage, failure to pay nonexempt employees time-and-a-half for hours worked in excess of 40 hours a week, and asking employees to work off-the-clock before or after shifts.

Other violations include making illegal deductions from wages earned and not giving the employee a pay stub, and misclassification of workers as independent contractors when they are really employees.

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And, of course, the tipping scam.

Some employers are guilty of confiscating tips from workers or failing to pay tipped workers the difference between their tips and the legal minimum wage. (In Wisconsin, for instance, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but waitstaff in restaurants can be paid as little as $2.33, and it's assumed the difference will be made up by the tips they receive. But, what is too often the case, they don't.)

While some workers do get help from Worker Justice Wisconsin in the form of advice and even legal help, the problem appears to be growing. The nonprofit, located at 1602 S. Park St., could use all the help it can get in getting justice for workers who put in a good day's work, but wind up being shorted on their paychecks.

Cheating workers needs to be stopped.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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