MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy says he wants to keep closer tabs on employers who don’t play by the rule.
He wants to increase the effectiveness of the office’s wage theft unit, which previously had one attorney and mainly focused on bad checks.
Ivan Flores, a board member at the Workers Interfaith Network, applauded the initiative.
When Flores was in high school, he took on a job working for a Memphis landscaper. He sometimes worked 17-hour days from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Soon he realized his employer was breaking the law.
“When my check came I counted it and I was like I’m missing money. I knew I had to get overtime. I knew that much,” he said.
Flores says that experience is common but employers usually get away with it. He knows many people who’ve been underpaid or not paid at all. It’s most common in industries like construction and food service, he said.
“It’s very common. At that point we were getting a few calls a week,” he said.
The Economic Policy Institute found U.S. workers had more than $3 billion dollars in stolen wages between 2017 and 2020.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said he has known about the issue since he was a Shelby County Commissioner but was unable to pass meaningful change at that time. When he took office as DA in September, he knew he wanted to do something more.
He’s now warning he will prosecute employers who violate wage laws, including rules governing overtime pay as well as worker misclassification.
“An employer has an employee but calls them an independent contractor to avoid paying them benefits,” Mulroy said.
Mulroy wants to hire up to five attorneys for the unit.
“It obviously hurts the workers being defrauded. It defrauds the government because employers aren’t paying into things like workers comp they’re supposed to. But it also hurts the legitimate employers playing by the rules,” he said.
Flores is hopeful the strategy will be effective.
“I think it’s going to scare them and be like alright, if I do that I can get in trouble and lose my business so I think they’ll stop taking advantage of people,” he said.
But he knows education is still important for workers who could be affected.
Here’s what he recommends for those who get hired for shift or day jobs:
- Get a phone number for the person who hired you
- Make note of their car’s license plate, especially for day work
- Write down your pay agreement
Mulroy says he wants the economic crimes unit to be proactive and look for opportunities to take on these cases.
The cases also include contractors who take advantage of customers.
Other agencies like the U.S. Department of Labor also investigate wage theft cases but they only focus on large companies, Flores said.
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