Low-wage workers facing wage theft fall between the cracks at the Illinois Department of Labor

Illinois has a good standing among other states around the country in terms of wage-theft law. It is one of 30 states that have criminal penalties for unpaid wages and one of six states that allow workers to file complaints anonymously.

Its standing is so good, in fact, that a 2011 report on wage-theft legislation around the county by the National Employment Law Project used the recently amended Illinois Wage and Payment Collection Act as model legislation for advocates in other states to push for.

But there's a catch: Whether the changes to the worker protection act, effective since January 2011, will significantly help workers  depends on the agency in charge of implementing it, the Illinois Department of Labor. The latest Chicago Reporter investigation found that the agency tasked with following up on wage theft and labor complaints often fails the workers it was created to protect.

By analyzing "wage claim inquiry pages," reporter María Inés Zamudio found that "among the cases completed and closed, the department found wage-law violations an estimated 59.5 percent of the time, but only an estimated 28 percent of those cases led to verifiable full payments, while an additional 17.6 percent resulted in settlements and other resolutions or ended up in court."

The new director of the department, Joe Costigan, told the Reporter that cases will be handled more quickly thanks to the amendment to the act, which give employees a new avenue to make wage-theft claims and enforce harsher criminal penalties on employers and managers. But some of the complaints found by the investigation are not directly addressed by the amendment.

These include: few electronic records, discouragement by the agency to workers about reaching out for information on the status of a complaint and flaws with the Labor Department's methods of keeping businesses accountable for restitution to their wronged employees.

Low-wage workers are hit hardest by wage theft. A 2008 University of Illinois at Chicago study, "Unregulated Work in Chicago," noted in the Reporter article found that "47 percent of low-wage workers experienced wage theft at least once during the previous work week."

And, for workers who, on average, make only $8.02 an hour, according to the National Employment Law Project, this adds up--highlighting the importance of getting workers the money they are owed. These workers "collectively ... lost more than $7.3 million per week as a result of labor law violations," according to the University of Illinois Chicago study.

On this week's Barbershop Show, Zamudio will discuss her battle with the Labor Department for the documents used in the investigation and why she chose to focus on wage theft. We'll also hear from Kim Bobo, executive director of the Interfaith Workers Justice Center, and workers affected by wage theft. Tune in to the show on 89.5 FM at 12 pm, Friday, March 16th. Comments and questions are welcome below, or tweet us @chicagoreporter.

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