BOSTON >> As workers gathered outside the State House Thursday to describe personal experiences with wage theft, the state auditor and staff from the attorney general's office joined them to show support for legislation backers say would step up employer accountability and protect worker rights.
A bill before the Senate Ways and Means (S 2207) would authorize stop work orders at businesses that violate wage laws, with worker wages guaranteed for the first ten days of lost work due to the order. It would also give the attorney general power to file civil actions for injunctive relief on behalf of workers.
According to Community Labor United, a coalition supporting the legislation, a total of $700 million in wages is stolen annually in Massachusetts from about 350,000 workers, and the attorney general is able to recover about $5.2 million.
Workers speaking at the coalition's rally said they'd experienced wage thefts in various forms.
Desheng Liang, a resident of Boston's Chinatown neighborhood, said through an interpreter that he had to pay a penalty to the bank after trying to cash a paycheck that bounced. The employer then offered to pay him in cash but never followed through.
Eduardo Albino said it took him three years to collect the $10,000 in wages he was owed by a landscaping company.
"That $10,000 wasn't just spare change. That meant hunger for my family, money that I needed to send back to feed them," he said, choking up as he spoke in Spanish with an interpreter.
Attorney General Maura Healey's office receives more than 5,000 wage theft complaints annually from workers, said Cynthia Mark, the chief of Healey's fair labor division. The complaints, Mark said, come from people who are getting paid below minimum wage, improperly compensated for overtime or receiving no pay at all.
"The attorney general supports the bill, because it will give us new tools that we need to fight wage theft," Mark said at the rally.
Auditor Suzanne Bump did not speak during the rally, but joined the demonstrators in chanting "Sí, se puede," a Spanish phrase that translates approximately to "Yes, we can."
Testifying in support of the legislation at a September hearing, Bump described the residential construction industry as "a hotbed for wage theft activity."
"The nature of this industry, with its many contractors and subcontractors, is ripe for employee misclassification," Bump said in written testimony provided by her office. "This practice victimizes some of the Commonwealth's most vulnerable workers."
The bill has met significant pushback from business and construction groups who argue that its definitions would add ambiguity to state law and "contribute to an anti-business sentiment in the commonwealth."
Twelve of the groups this month sent a letter to Senate Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka, saying the legislation "seeks to shift liability and unnecessarily penalize responsible businesses rather than addressing the core issue of employees understanding their rights if they are cheated."
Rich Rogers of the Greater Boston Labor Council criticized the opposition as "the same kneejerk reaction we hear anytime you try to help a worker."