Despite recent minimum-wage hikes around the country, workers have continued to fight to recoup stolen wages.  A 2015 report from the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, the Employment Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society, and the National Center for
Law and Economic Justice e identified $125 million in empty judgments and orders that impact low-wage workers. More penalties, increased reporting requirements, and the creation of wage bonds have not been able to stem the tide of wage theft.


Philanthropy New York hosted a funder briefing in partnership with Hill Snowdon Foundation, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, New York Foundation, and Public Welfare Foundation that highlighted the issue of wage theft. The presenters at the briefing included a National Moblization Against Sweatshops member who is organizing his fellow workers to secure owned wages and representatives from Flushing Workers CenterCenter for Popular DemocracyChinese Staff and Workers AssociationMake the Road New York, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, and the Labor Bureau at the New York State Attorney General’s Office.

During the discussion, presenters shared strategies for addressing wage theft including worker-led organizing and mobilization efforts to bring public attention to this issue, outreach activities to education workers about their rights under current labor laws, and legal action against employers to secure judgements on owned wages. While these strategies have galvanized support for workers who have suffered wage theft, several panelists acknowledged the challenges of collected owed wages because of limited penalties, increased worker harassment, and owners are closing down businesses and filing bankruptcy and then reopening under a new name.

In addition to the current strategies, worker advocates and organizers are using other tactics to find relief for workers. The Securing Wages Earned Against Theft Coalition, which includes more than 65 organizing, advocacy, and legal groups and unions, is worked with New York Assembly member Linda Rosenthal to introduce a bill that would amends current labor laws to establish a wage lien that puts a hold on employers’ property until their owed wages are paid and hold the largest business shareholders personally liable for wage theft. Several advocates are examining wage theft struggles across the country to share successful strategies with regional and local campaigns. The New York State Attorney General’s office is also working with advocates and workers to pursue employers who cheat workers, craft new policies to strengthen enforcement, and levy stiffer penalties for labor violators.

The grantmakers in attendance discussed the different ways that philanthropy could support wage theft work including:

  • General support funding that will allow groups to pivot their strategies throughout the campaign

  • Better coordination of resources among national and local funders and grantmakers that support organizing, advocacy, or legal strategies

  • Resources for 501c3 nonprofit organizations as well as for 501c4 political activities