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Wage Theft Penalties Would Be Increased Under New Bill

State Chamber Of Commerce Speaks Out Against Measure At Tuesday Hearing

Brian Wallace (CC-BY-NC)

The state Senate’s labor committee is considering a bill that would increase penalties for employers who illegally withhold wages from their workers and make it easier for workers to win wage claims filed with the state.

The bill makes changes to current law that protects employees from what is commonly called “wage theft,” comprising everything from forcing people to work off the clock to paying workers less than minimum wage.

Lobbyist James Buchen testified against the bill on behalf of the state’s chamber of commerce. Gilman Halsted/WPR

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The proposal has strong support from unions. Stephanie Bloomingdale of the state AFL-CIO said it will help level the playing field for low-wage workers.

“Criminal behavior like stealing workers’ wages should be codified into law,” said Bloomingdale. “Increasing workers’ legal rights to their hard-earned pay is commonsense legislation.”

But testifying against the bill on behalf of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, lobbyist James Buchen said most wage claims are without merit, or are against companies that have gone bankrupt and simply don’t have the money to pay.

“No amount of statutes (is) going to change the fact that there’s sometimes no money — there’s simply no assets to get after,” he said.

Buchen said the increased penalties in the bill will encourage unscrupulous lawyers to drag out wage claim lawsuits to “game the system” for exorbitant settlements.

Fourteen other states, including Minnesota and Illinois, have adopted a similar increased wage theft penalties.