The National Consumers League’s Special Project on Wage Theft hosted a Senate briefing on March 13 to explore the under-reported and growing issue of payroll fraud. Payroll fraud is the result of misclassification, meaning that an employer will identify an employee as an independent contractor or pay them off the books, skirting certain worker protections such as minimum wage, paid leave, or worker’s compensation. This phenomenon is widespread in temporary employment industries such as construction, agriculture, trucking, and janitorial services. Unfortunately, misclassification continues to grow, with too few regulators and too many employers who see payroll fraud as an easy way to save money. Workers who do not receive proper benefits, as well as ethical businesses who follow the rules, are ultimately the biggest victims. More information about this issue can be found at the NCL Web site.
Employers responsible for payroll fraud do so knowingly and intentionally. Classifying a worker as an independent contractor is not a minor clerical error, but rather a conscious decision made by an employer. The problem is not that the laws are confusing or hard to understand. However, employers know that they can get away with not paying employees the benefits they deserve. In this tumultuous economy, with the added factor of fear over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, many purposefully break the rules. This puts honest businesses, especially those bidding on contracts, at a distinct disadvantage and unable to compete with the violators.
Heather Rowe, the Director of the Department of Labor Standards from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and member of the payroll fraud panel, explained how Massachusetts is handling this complex issue. Her state is a good example for how to combat violating employers. Using a joint task force and a fraud detection system, Massachusetts has begun the process of identifying employers who violate payroll rules and collecting the money they owe. From 2010 to 2011 the state of Massachusetts recovered almost 11 million dollars in unpaid revenues.
With this problem continuing to grow, the question becomes: how do you honor those companies that have followed the rules and punish the companies practicing payroll fraud? At Wednesday’s Senate briefing, panelists discussed one option: publicly shaming employers who violate the rules in order to drive business to companies that play by the rules. California included a public shaming aspect in the employee misclassification law passed in the state in 2012. Another option is to pass federal legislation such as the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act, which was proposed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in 2011. Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid – And What We Can Do About It and member of the panel, says that there need to be more federal regulators monitoring payroll fraud. “The TSA was able to add 56,000 new regulators in one year. All we need is 1,000 regulators, but it’s an unpopular position in this economy, and people won’t support that,” she said.
The simple fact is payroll fraud is steadily on the rise and rapidly spreading to new industries. Today, many people who work low-wage jobs do not know that they deserve additional benefits or they are too afraid to complain to their employer for fear they will lose the job altogether. New sites such as payrollfraud.net allow people to anonymously report cases of payroll fraud and helps put public pressure on employers to cease violations. The issue needs more exposure and, as more states follow the example of Massachusetts and other states that have taken action, it will become clear that preventing payroll fraud not only benefits workers, but also provides additional revenues to the states at a time when nearly every state needs the money.