Many poor people have a job--they just don't get paid


Poor people are poor because they don’t want to work, right? That’s what a lot of Americans believe.

But imagine working 40 hours a week, even putting in overtime, and having nothing to show for it. That’s a reality for many of Chicago’s workers who experience wage theft–employers circumventing the law by paying under the minimum wage, shorting hours, asking employees to work off the clock or just not paying them at all.

An investigation by Crain’s Chicago Business reveals just how pervasive wage theft is in Cook County. Of Cook County’s 310,000 low-wage workers, about half of them have experienced wage theft, according to a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

And for workers already making low wages, getting less than they’re due can have some serious impact–unpaid bills, utility shutoffs, evictions, high-interest loans and poor credit.

More at

Crain’s reporter and former Chicago Reporter intern Claire Bushey talked to Jesenya Rodriguez, who accumulated overdraft fees and missed her high school graduation because she couldn’t pay her school fees when her employer began skipping pay checks and shorted her $1,200.

“Thanks to them, I couldn’t finish high school,” Rodriguez said. “Now my credit is totally ruined.”

Wage theft also has significant racial dimensions.

“Among U.S.-born workers, blacks had the highest
violation rates at 35%, compared with 17% of Asians, 12% of Latinos and
1% of whites,” Crain’s reported.

The article thoroughly documents numerous cases of wage theft in the Chicago metro area and what workers go through when their paychecks are repeatedly short. When even a  publication dedicated to business news is willing to report this extensively about people at bottom of the economic spectrum, it’s clear that the issue is a serious problem. If you’re interested in the plight of Cook County’s least fortunate, the article is a must read.

Just a few weeks ago, we reported on a former car wash employee who
stood up against his former boss and demanded he be paid the overtime he
earned. Luis Perez received some of his overdue wages back, but not all
workers are that lucky.

Although many Americans demand that poor folks in this country be more self-reliant, many poor folks might have the “self” part of the equation worked out. But they can’t rely on who’s supposed to be doling out their hard-earned pay check.

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  • Actual comment someone made to me on Twitter about Jesenya Rodriguez:

    And then this:

    Now, they might have been being sarcastic, I'm not sure. But the sad reality is that even if they were, there are probably plenty of people that would actually feel that way.

  • I know this story was painstakingly researched, but even if what this guy has to say was true, I really don't think it matters. If she had bad credit or dropped out of high school, does that mean she deserves to have her wages stolen?

    The fact that he uses the phrase "this fine company" doesn't really give him any credibility in my book. But more so, it bothers me that we're constantly looking for a perfect person - one who's made no mistakes or done nothing to "deserve" what's happening to them - and only then are we willing to grant that they should be treated fairly. That is a common reaction to most stories about poor people - that they must be lying. What I think is important is standing up against that attitude and challenging it, not using it as an opportunity to say a person's plight doesn't matter.

  • In reply to MeganCottrell:

    Your first point is a great one. Right is right and wrong is wrong, no matter who it happens to.

    As for the rest, I think the hard reality is that the plight of poor people really DOESN'T matter to some :-( People think everyone who is poor is poor for reasons that are entirely of their own making. I'm not sure what can be done to combat that attitude.

  • In reply to MeganCottrell:

    Many people are only concerned about themselves. I have worked a lot of low paying jobs as an artist. People are arrogant while they have it good but when an unexpected layoff that had nothing to do with their service occurs and they find out what the poor go through they are to a person very angry. For those of us who have been down a long time their anger is shallow.

    People do not care about their neighbors even though they may claim to be religious when they make statements kicking to the curb everyone who is poor. There are a million plus stories in the brutal city. Never will a stereotype tell their tales.

  • In reply to cdrew:

    And of course many people are lucky enough to go through their entire lives never experiencing hard times. For those people it's exceedingly difficult to imagine what it's like or how easy it is to get there. It's an act of sheer will to stay sensitive to the plight of those less fortunate. Many people just don't make the effort.

  • In reply to cdrew:

    It's a pet theory of mine that social policy that beats up on the poor stems from a failure of imagination. People simply can't imagine the circumstances that could condemn them to poverty, so they imagine people with very little have done something to deserve their lot.

    And thank you, Megan. It damn well was painstakingly researched.

  • In reply to Hecate21:

    Right, like I said above. I don't think some people understand just how easy it can be to fall into poverty. And in some cases, their lack of imagination isn't entirely their fault. For instance, I can imagine being poor better than I can imagine, say, being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader or traveling to the moon. So, for me, being thin and incredibly athletic or not terrified of g-forces is quite nebulous. For many people, not having enough money or food must seem equally nebulous.

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