Historically wage theft and other crimes against workers have not been prosecuted. Rather, civil enforcement by labor departments, along with private class-action lawsuits, have more commonly been the methods used to enforce crucial workplace protections like the right to be paid wages owed. However, responding to widespread, entrenched, and often egregious violations of workplace laws, an increasing number of district attorneys (DAs) and state attorneys general (AGs) have been bringing criminal prosecutions against law-breaking employers. This development is particularly important in light of limits in worker protection laws, underfunding of labor enforcement agencies that enforce those laws, and employers’ increasing use of forced arbitration clauses—which deprive workers of their right to take their employer to court, all of which have narrowed the options for workers whose rights have been violated.
State and local prosecutors have been bringing charges in a range of cases:
misclassification (of workers as independent contractors) and payroll fraud
failure to pay unemployment insurance taxes
workers’ compensation insurance fraud
egregious workplace safety and health violation
workplace sexual assault
witness tampering and retaliation
Criminal prosecution of violations of workers’ rights is appropriate and helps strengthen worker protection laws by establishing meaningful consequences for lawbreaking employers. Egregious violations of workers’ rights harm workers and communities, make it difficult for honest employers to compete, and deprive public coffers of money needed for critical safety net programs. Prosecutors engaged in workers’ rights issues should continue to build on this work, and more offices should join the effort.
State legislatures should strengthen statutes protecting workers, and ideally create funding mechanisms for pursuing criminal cases against lawbreakers.
Worker organizations and advocates should build relationships with DAs and the AG in their states to draw these untapped resources into the effort to protect workers’ rights.