Employers in Buffalo may have violated laws regarding wages, hours, health and safety for low-wage workers. These findings are according to a new study published by UB law professor Nicole Hallett.
She provided a survey to 200 low-income workers about their current work conditions. Hallett presented the findings of her new study at this morning’s 9th annual Buffalo Poverty Research Workshop at the Central Library downtown.
The catch is, many low-wage workers don’t know they’re being taken advantage of. Hallett administered a series of questions so she could determine as a labor lawyer if they were suffering wage violations or not. In many cases workers who are being exploited don’t recognize there are laws that protect them, according to Hallett.
She found nearly 59 percent of workers revealed at least one pay related violation and 56 percent revealed at least one potential health and safety violation in their current employment. She also found 16 percent of low-wage workers in the study reported they were paid less than minimum wage at the time of the study.
Hallett’s other findings included violations concerning, off the clock work and missing weekly paychecks. But, only four percent of workers in the study said they came forward and filed a report.
The results of the survey shocked Hallett. Many workers who experienced these issues wither found new employment or continued to endure violations at their current jobs, according to Hallett. She feels the number of workers who experience these wage violations is too high and it’s egregious that these actions are not being caught.
“A majority of low-wage workers in their current job are facing pay violations where they’re either having their pay stolen or they’re not properly getting overtime and a majority of workers are also suffering potential health and safety issues,” Hallett said. “We’re not talking about a small minority of workers, we’re talking about a majority of the workers surveyed in this study.”
Hallett said there are government agencies who are tasked with enforcing these laws, but the resources are unfortunately not there. The amount of resources public institutions are putting towards enforcing these laws, pales in comparison to the problem.
“Employers know that, they know that the risk that the Department of Labor either at the state or federal level, the odds that one of those agencies is going to hold them accountable is very small,” Hallett said. “And so because of that they have a great incentive to violate the law and then cross their fingers and hope that no one finds out.”
Hallett’s study advocates for a greater investment of public resources in enforcing the laws that are already on the books. These violations are currently happening, if employers are stealing money from low-wage workers, she wants to see law enforcement take action and administrate the proper punishment. Without this action, she feels nothing will change.
“Typically we think of state or federal governments as being responsible for enforcing these laws,” Hallett said. “One of my recommendations in the report is that our local governments, both the City of Buffalo and Erie County should be taking a more active role in ensuring their citizens’ rights are being enforced in the workplace.”
Hallett argues local governments are very focused on making sure jobs come to the area, because they boost the economy and prevent poverty. But for those who do have a job in Buffalo, it doesn’t mean low-wage workers don’t experience poverty.
“If someone has a fulltime job in this area you would hope that correlates to them being able to pull themselves out of poverty,” Hallett said. “What my study shows is that this is not the case currently.”
Hallett said even at UB, graduate students are still refused a living wage, forcing many students to apply for government assistance or pick up extra jobs. She views the university’s refusal to increase graduate stipends as the school failing to be an example for the community.
“Large employers need to set examples for employers overall. The University at Buffalo and the city and the county should be setting an example by paying their employees and contractors a living wage,” Hallett said. “Of course there’s more work to be done and many private employers are the ones violating the law. But our big institutions and our government institutions, including UB, should consider themselves as examples for the employer community at large.”