On Wednesday, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy released a report on wage theft in West Virginia. Wage theft can be defined in many ways. Some examples are minimum wage violations, overtime violations, illegal deductions, employee misclassification, and tipped minimum wage violations.

Working as a union organizer, I have reported wage theft numerous times in the last 10 years. Though I know wage theft is a serious problem, the report really opened my eyes on just how big a problem it is. Over the years I have reported contractors not paying overtime and not paying the federal posted wage rate. The cases I have personally turned in and were prosecuted have probably added up to about $350,000. So, when I read the figures in the report, I was shocked.

n From 2008-2017: $7.7 million dollars in back wages were recovered in more than 15,000 cases in West Virginia.

n From 2008-2017: 1,800 employers were investigated for wage theft.

n Workers in West Virginia lose as much as $90 million each year to minimum wage violations.

At both the federal and state level, workers should be paid what they earn. Nationally, female workers are more likely to experience wage theft. African American workers suffer wage theft three times the rate of white workers. Workers not covered by a union are twice as likely to experience wage theft. That's unacceptable to me, and I hope it is unacceptable to every West Virginian. What's more disturbing to me is a worker working for minimum wage or tips is the most common victim of wage theft. Why? Has our state turned its back on workers? Has the American worker been forgotten?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage theft in the U.S. totals $15 billion. While wage theft is very prevalent, it is very often unreported. The part that troubles me most, not only as a worker but as a human, is that low-wage workers are the most frequent victims of wage theft. The workers who work paycheck-to-paycheck are a lot of those victims. Wage theft has such a snowball effect. The worker loses money and in turn the tax base is less. Workers who are victims of wage theft often must rely on public assistance. The top five industries for wage theft in West Virginia are full-service restaurants, commercial building construction, home care services, computer systems, and security guards and patrol services.

Our elected leaders need to act now on this issue. Wage theft affects workers from every race, religion, political preference and economic background from all corners of the state. No worker should ever be shorted their earned pay. Employers who commit wage theft need stricter penalties and harsher sentences for these crimes. West Virginia workers should never be cheated out of hard-earned wages they have earned. In West Virginia in 2020 wage theft should not be as prevalent as it is.

Wage theft needs to be treated as a serious crime. The time has come for West Virginia workers to stand up, demand what they rightfully earned and tell lawmakers to do something. As I have spoken to workers about being victims of wage theft, they are often scared. Scared of retaliation by the employer and in fear of losing the job they have and desperately need. It's simply exploitation of workers. If our elected leaders really want to help West Virginia workers, if they really want to do something that puts money in the pocket of workers, if they want to increase our tax base, if they want to stand up for workers, then they should pass anti-wage theft laws that help workers and prosecute employers with stricter penalties.

Please visit wvpolicy.org for more information on wage theft and other issues affecting workers. It's time to put an end to wage theft. No more theft. No more victims.

Brian Stanley is director of organizing for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 53 in Parkersburg.