If employees routinely stole from the store cash box without consequence, we’re pretty sure we’d hear about it.

Yet, evidence shows the opposite happens with surprising regularity, with unscrupulous business owners docking checks and withholding pay at their whim, and workers are often left with little recourse.

Wage theft, as it is called, in particular hurts low-wage workers already struggling to make ends meet. When left to flourish through lack of enforcement, it puts companies  who don’t follow the law above those who do, and favors large corporations over the small businesses that help make Maine what it is.

Thankfully, the Legislature has passed a bill that would give employees, largely powerless now, the ability to address wage theft, along with discrimination, harassment and other violations of worker rights. L.D. 1711 is now on Gov. Mills’ desk, and she should sign it. If instead Mills uses her veto pen, lawmakers should override it.

The bill, based on a successful California law, would allow employees who feel their rights are being violated to bring suit against their employers on behalf of the state, providing an avenue to seek justice when others have been shut off or otherwise won’t work.

Such a law is made necessary by the increasing use of forced arbitration clauses in worker contracts. These clauses, often buried in a stack of paperwork that employees must sign to start work, take away an employee’s right to sue for labor violations.

Instead, they are required to take complaints to private arbitration, through a process dictated by the company. You can imagine how that usually goes.

Workers could take their complaints to the state agencies responsible for oversight. But they are tremendously underresourced – the Maine Department of Labor, for example, has fewer employees now than it did in the 1970s, and just five investigators following up on employee claims, though three more were added in the recently passed two-year budget.

It’s an environment ripe for employer malfeasance. The National Employment Law Project estimates, conservatively, that employees in Maine under forced arbitration were the victims of more than $40 million in wage theft in 2019, though it’s hard to say for sure because it’s so difficult for workers to get their cases heard.

Lawmakers also heard from workers who had to swallow all sorts of mistreatment. Some were repeatedly harassed or fired for asking for relief from unsafe working conditions. Some were forced to work unpaid hours. In addition to their main complaints, many were fired without getting their last paychecks.

Nearly all of them have been denied relief. Workers and advocates who talked to the Editorial Board this week said they contacted state agencies, only to be told the state didn’t have the capacity to check out their claims – the three additional investigators, once hired, won’t solve that.

Allowing workers to bring lawsuits on behalf of the state, which is not subject to forced arbitration, is a work-around that could help mistreated employees get justice. It would give all workers another path to consider when things go wrong at work.

According to a list compiled by a labor attorney, at least 225 companies in Maine use forced arbitration. The NELP estimates that covers more than 76,000 workers here.

Across the country, the majority of low-wage workers are subjected to forced arbitration, with the number growing every day.

Those workers need protections, as do the business owners who run their shops the right way.

Because right now, it’s the companies that lower costs by withholding pay and cutting corners on safety that have the advantage.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.