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Buttons at an informational table at LaborFest 2017 at the Madison Labor Temple in Madison, Wis., Monday, Sept. 4, 2017. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

Earlier this year, I noted in a column the growing incidence of ruthless employers cheating their workers out of their rightful pay.

Studies have shown it has become an annual $50 billion scam, mostly against the most vulnerable among us — many who are working for low, entry-level pay in the first place.

Some of the increase has been attributed to the proliferation of the so-called gig economy, where some companies are finding it easy to shortchange everyone from ride-sharing drivers to those who deliver food to your home. Fudging digital records is often easy to do.

Another factor, obviously, is how easy it is to shortchange unrepresented workers who know if they complain, they will lose their jobs. And, of course, that goes double for undocumented workers who are told that they will be reported to the authorities if they open their mouths.

The problem exists in Wisconsin, and Dane County, too. It's estimated that workers here are being cheated out of up to a billion dollars each year.

Last week, I got an email from Mary Bell, the president of Worker Justice Wisconsin — a nonprofit that was formed in 2018 through a merger of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice and the Workers' Right Center, two organizations that were troubled by this growing problem.

It's now a coalition of religious congregations, interfaith bodies, labor unions and individuals. A 13-member volunteer board of directors guides its work.

Because our Evjue Foundation had made a grant to Worker Justice last year, she wanted me to know the money is being put to good use. The nonprofit had just been able to recover nearly $11,000 for five Madison workers — waitresses and kitchen staff — who had been shorted wages by a Madison restaurant. Some of the missing money involved the employer's refusal to pay overtime. Others were shorted hours. In a couple of cases, the paychecks simply bounced.

The $11,000 was just the latest example. Bell explained that the nonprofit has been averaging about $100,000 in reclaimed wages each of the last two years.

The biggest challenge for the mostly volunteer organization is to get aggrieved workers to understand that there is a place they can turn for help. A significant portion of its budget goes to printing pamphlets and posters to spread the word. When workers do seek help, Worker Justice assists in lodging a complaint with the state Department of Workforce Development and confronting the employer.

In the case of the five recent workers, the employer agreed to make good on the missing money, so the organization isn't naming the business. If an employer is willing to fess up and agrees to restore what's due to the workers, there is no reason to further embarrass the company, she told me. But, if they refuse to restore what they essentially stole, that's a different story.

She agreed that $11,000 to five individuals doesn't sound like a lot of money. But, when you're making the minimum wage or a few dollars above it, it's big money, she added.

The missing money can be hugely stressful not only to the worker, but to his or her family, many of them just getting by paycheck to paycheck, Bell pointed out.

Worker Justice Wisconsin is located in the Madison Labor Temple at 1602 S. Park St. Its phone number is 608-255-0376.

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

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