A new report from the Economic Policy Institute and the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program documents the recent increase in district attorneys (DAs) and state attorneys general (AGs) criminally prosecuting employer crimes against workers.
This includes bringing charges against employers for wage theft, misclassification and payroll fraud, workplace safety hazards, sexual assault, and human trafficking, among other crimes against workers.
As the report explains, historically crimes against workers have not been prosecuted. More often, the criminal justice system has intervened to protect employers; for example, a worker stealing from an employer would likely face charges, while an employer committing wage theft likely would not.
However, responding to widespread, entrenched, and often egregious violations of workplace laws, an increasing number of DAs and state AGs have brought criminal prosecutions against law-breaking employers. This development is important in light of the limited options for enforcing workers’ rights—as a result of the underfunding of labor enforcement agencies—and employers’ increasing use of forced arbitration clauses, which prevent workers from suing in court.
The report provides dozens of case examples of prosecutions of employer crimes against workers in jurisdictions across the country, including California, Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and more. The report also outlines the rationale for bringing such cases criminally and not just civilly, such as increased deterrence of employer violations. Finally, the report includes recommendations for greater enforcement of this kind, and offers tips to prosecutors and worker organizations wishing to get started.
“State and local prosecutors nationwide increasingly see protecting workers as part of their mission,” said Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and a senior fellow at EPI. “Wage theft, worker misclassification, unemployment insurance tax evasion, and workplace dangers are widespread, with serious consequences for workers, communities, and local economies. More DAs and AGs should get involved in this work.”