As if working for minimum wage isn’t bad enough, a new study, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, a survey of more than 4,000 low-wage workers, suggests “many employment and labor laws are regularly and systematically violated.”

The 2008 survey of 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in the three largest U.S. cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City–found that 26 percent of workers in the study sample were paid less than minimum wage in the previous work week. Further, a quarter of those polled worked more than 40 hours during the previous week, 76 percent of whom were not paid the legally required overtime rate. This translates to a loss of an average of $2,634 annually, out of total earnings of $17,616, for a full-time employee or a wage theft of 15%.

In addition, when workers complained about working conditions or tried to organize a union, employers often retaliated against them. For this reason, many other workers in similar situations were too afraid of the consequences to complain.

“The core protections that many Americans take for granted—the right to be paid at least the minimum wage, the right to be paid for overtime hours, the right to take meal breaks, access to workers’ compensation when injured, and the right to advocate for better working conditions—are failing significant numbers of workers.” –Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

Women were significantly more likely than men to experience minimum wage violations, and foreign-born workers were nearly twice as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to have a minimum wage violation. Such violations could be found in every sector of the economy and were not restricted to the low-income employees.

I wish I could say I find the news shocking but I myself was frequently uncompensated for overtime while I was working as a reporter, often putting in 50- or 60-hour weeks. Even worse, when I worked for a newspaper in Fairfax County, Va., I didn’t initially notice I was not being paid the salary they had promised when I was hired. I soon learned it was a common practice of my employer to offer a higher salary and then pay employees several thousand less. Without an employment offer in writing there was little I could do.

Beyond employees being cheated, these wage violations have far-reaching consequences on the economy. Low-income employees who cannot make ends meet are forced to rely on public services. Each time an employer shortchanges an employee we all pay. And, left unchecked, such mass violations of employment laws impact even those who treat their employees fairly.

“Everyone has a stake in addressing the problem of workplace violations. When impacted workers and their families struggle in poverty and constant economic insecurity, the strength and resiliency of local communities suffer. When unscrupulous employers violate the law, responsible employers are forced into unfair competition, setting off a race to the bottom that threatens to bring down standards throughout the labor market. And when significant numbers of workers are underpaid, tax revenues are lost.” –Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

To combat these violations, the study suggests the following: strengthen government enforcement of employment and labor laws; update legal standards for the 21 st century workplace; establish equal status for immigrants in the workplace.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper