When a government agency (state, federal, or local) settles a wage claim with an employer, the agency often puts on a little show for the press. Members of the agency and local politicians hand the workers a giant check and they all congratulate each other for standing up against “wage theft.” “Wage theft” is the current euphemism for an employer failing to comply with one or more requirements as to how employees are paid.
Usually “theft” has nothing to do with it. Usually it’s an employer not fully understanding the nuanced requirements regarding meal and rest breaks, how to document employees hours, who can or can’t be paid a salary, who is or isn’t an independent contractor, what information belongs on a pay stub, how to calculate regular rate of pay, and any of numerous other wage and hour laws.
Still, the agency swoops in, looks back over a period of years, and threatens to tack on penalties that often equal or exceed the alleged underpayment. Often, the employer would have been perfectly willing to correct any mistakes it had made. But now the agency is threatening prolonged litigation and individual liability for anyone with an ownership interest or role in managing the business. The employer is usually relieved to settle for a fraction of what the agency says they’ll seek absent a settlement.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) — yes, that is my name listed as a “Practioner Contributor” on page viii, thanks for noticing — “theft” is “the felonious taking and removing of another’s personal property with the intent of depriving the true owner of it; larceny.” So let’s save the term “wage theft” for when an employer is intentionally cheating its employees out of their wages, not when it’s only mistake was not fully understanding the requirements of wage and hour law – requirements that the agencies that enforce them can’t always agree on.
Finally, anticipating some of the criticisms this post may receive, there’s nothing wrong with the taste of these grapes. They’re not that sour.