The Ragged Edge of Rugged Individualism: Wage Theft and the Personalization of Social Harm

Every year, millions of low-wage workers suffer wage theft when their employers refuse to pay them what they have earned. Wage theft is both prevalent and highly impactful. It costs individuals thousands each year in unpaid earnings, siphons tens of billions of dollars from low-income communities, depletes the government of necessary resources, distorts the competitive labor market, and causes significant personal harm to its victims. In recent years, states and cities have passed new laws to attack the problem. These legal changes are important. They are also, broadly speaking, failing the people they are supposed to protect.

This Article fills a significant gap in the literature by detailing the full scope of damage caused by wage theft and by critically examining the dominant approach to combatting it. Drawing on existing research and nearly 60 in-depth interviews about wage theft in the District of Columbia, this Article paints a thorough picture of wage theft’s harms, explores why and how existing reforms are failing, and explains what must be done instead.

Enforcement schemes reflect the current view that wage theft is a personal harm properly addressed on a case-by-case basis in the civil justice system. As a result, reforms—both as written and implemented—generally attempt to empower and incentivize individuals to action. These approaches are failing. They misunderstand what wage theft is, how it plays out, and how it must be addressed. Wage theft is not an individual problem, but a social harm, and it therefore requires a broad, public response. Because low-wage workers live economically precarious lives and are so dependent on their jobs to survive, they almost never take formal legal action over violations of their rights. Government bodies cannot continue to rely on workers themselves to enforce their rights, but must take on a new role as robust, active, and strategic enforcers. Unless and until they do, millions of people will continue to suffer violations of their basic workplace rights with no meaningful recourse.