NEW YORK -- When Shenita Simon, a mother of three, gets paid for working overtime at her fast-food job, it allows her to splurge on the little things that she pointedly describes as luxuries, like school field trips for her kids and clothes that have never been worn.
But Simon, who works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Brooklyn, says her bosses find all sorts of ways to make sure she rarely gets that extra pay. "They have no respect for the law," she said. "They need to be held accountable."
In a step toward that end, Simon joined dozens of other low-wage workers at a Thursday New York City Council hearing on economic injustice in the fast food industry.
New York's council members are just the latest public officials to look into what labor advocates say is a wage-theft "crime wave" sweeping the country. In the past year, Texas, Kentucky and New Mexico have all cracked down on wage theft by passing new laws or strengthening old ones. Just this week, Oregon's legislature approved a bill aimed at stopping wage theft in the construction sector. (An anti-wage theft bill in California, however, recently died in the legislature, after the Chamber of Commerce portrayed it as a job-killer.)
An extensive study of wage theft in 2009 found that of the more than 4,000 low-wage workers surveyed in three cities, 26 percent said they were paid less than minimum wage and 76 percent of those who worked more than 40 hours a week were not paid overtime.
According to that report and others, employers can steal from workers in a variety of ways: They can deprive workers of the legally required overtime pay rate of time-and-a-half; take illegal deductions from worker paychecks to cover the costs of meals and uniforms; pressure workers to take out the garbage or put away boxes before clocking in or after clocking out; and refuse to reimburse delivery workers who are robbed on the job.
New York State adopted one of the country's strongest anti-wage-theft laws in 2011, and the state's attorney general has launched a further investigation into these practices. But workers and their supporters say the problem remains rampant.
A recent report by Fast Food Forward, a campaign launched by a coalition of labor groups to improve the pay and working conditions of New York City's fast-food workers, found that 84 percent said they’d experienced at least one form of wage theft, with nearly a third reporting that their employers had stolen overtime pay.
"Some fast-food employers simply refuse to pay the time-and-a-half for hours over 40," said Stephan Cha-Kim, an attorney for Make the Road New York, a community group that advocates for low-wage workers, in testimony at Thursday's hearing. "Others spread out pay for employees with more than 40 hours across multiple paychecks to avoid overtime, a blatant fiction we have seen commonly deployed in numerous other industries."
Simon, the KFC worker, explained in detail one particular method her employer used to ensure she didn't get overtime: After she worked 60 hours one week last year, she said, her manager paid her for just 40 hours and then added the remaining hours to Simon's next three paychecks, so that she never totaled more than 40 hours per week. At the time, Simon says, she didn't realize the practice was illegal.
Simon's manager, Marsha Hall, said she was familiar with the complaint but denied responsibility. Hall said she'd pass along a request for comment to the owners of the KFC franchise. They did not immediately respond.
Cha-Kim said New York's 2011 Wage Theft Prevention Act and other recent efforts to combat the problem are "not enough on their own in face of ongoing economic realities."
"For hard-working employees in low-wage industries like fast food, current wages, even in the rare cases they comply fully with the law, are at their lowest in real terms in decades and cannot support even survival at the poverty level," he said at the council hearing.
Most fast-food workers make close to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, putting many of them below the official poverty line of $23,283 for a family of four. At the hearing, Elise Gould, the director of health policy and research for the Economic Policy Institute, argued that the minimum wage doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of a family living in New York City.
According to a budget calculator tool devised by EPI, a two-parent, two-child family in New York City needs a minimum of $93,502 to pay for child care, housing, food, transportation, health care, taxes, and miscellaneous necessities like clothes and household supplies.
Sitting on a bench in City Hall Park before the hearing, Simon said she felt the city council's attention to the struggles of low-wage workers was "long overdue."
She said she's finally getting overtime pay now that she’s participating in the Fast Food Forward campaign, which grabbed local headlines by launching a pair of one-day strikes and is credited with inspiring a wave of similar job actions by low-wage workers around the country.
Even so, she said, she wants to see New York take a tougher stance against employers who dodge the law. “Just like if someone was to invade your home, invade your life, you’d want your property back,” she said.