Wage theft, a public health crisis

Today, I had the pleasure of hearing UC Berkeley (go bears!) professor Meredith Minkler talk about her work as she accepted the Tisch Research Prize for Civic Engagement.

A leading practitioner and proponent of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), Minkler spoke specifically about her work with restaurant employees in San Fransisco’s Chinatown.

In CBPR, community members play a key role in shaping the research approach and goals, bringing critical local knowledge. This approach brings community members and researchers together as equal partners who co-learn from each other through the process of the the research.

For example, initially, the research team was interest in questions of worker health and safety. However, the community members involved in the project quickly pointed out another pressing issue: wage theft.

In their subsequent research, they found 58% of this population had experienced wage theft – such as businesses taking employee’s tips. 65% reported working overtime for no pay. Every year, workers lost an estimated $10,450,000 to wage theft.

Minkler began to see this as a significant, neglected public health problem.

And it is.

While particularly challenging for workers who are undocumented or who are not native English speakers, the problem of wage theft is endemic to the food service industry. There are certainly a lot of great restaurants who treat their employees well, but in my experience there’s an unspoken darker side to the industry as a whole.

Working with San Francisco’s Chinese Progressive Association, Minkler conducted and presented research and brought public attention to this issue. They fought for, and won, a wage theft ordinance to protect workers. They even got enforcement provisions included, “giving the law some teeth,” as she said.

And that’s all fantastic. It’s a great example of the value of CBPR. Not only did community members help researchers understand their community – where to reach people, how to ask questions, what needs there are – community members were able to act on the data because it was something they cared about. It shows what can happen when research serves a community rather than the other way around.

But there’s still so much more to do on this issue.

The partnership is now looking for ways to reward businesses who do treat their workers fairly and to further penalize those which don’t.

The wage theft ordinance is great, but it’s only a piece of the battle.

Until workers feel safe speaking out against unfair conditions, until it’s easy for them to get the resources and support they need, until business stop thinking they can get away with wage theft, there will be more work to do.

And yes, this is a public health issue. Because workers who lose wages work more and live on less. Because the stress of just trying to get through the day in the face of such financial insecurity has been shown to have severe negative health effects.

Because there are more people suffering around us than we probably know.

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