Crains: Activists use graphic novel to spread awareness of wage theft

By Ashley Boncimino, Crain's Chicago Business, May 29, 2013

Activist groups in Chicago are trying to raise awareness of an ordinance passed this year by the City Council that can strip employers of business licenses if they're found guilty of wage theft — the illegal withholding of wages from employees.

The ordinance, which was passed in January and takes effect in July, says that companies found to have committed two or more "willful or egregious" violations may have their licenses revoked.

Now, labor groups and observers say, the trick is to spread the word to workers about their rights and press the city to crack down on employers.

"Most workers know they're being taken advantage of," said Arise Chicago Worker Center Program Director Adam Kader, who helped draft the ordinance and bring it to the City Council. "But they aren't aware of what they can do about it."

One new tool activist groups are turning to is a 32-page graphic novel called "Wage Theft: Crime and Justice."...

Even as more workers become aware of wage theft, cracking down on employers who engage in it is tough, observers say. In Cook County, employers unlawfully retain an estimated $7.3 million per week from workers in low-wage industries, according to one study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Urban Economic Development.

Yet while it's obviously illegal not to pay workers, some businesses won't return wages even after being ordered by a court to do so, said Ari Weisbard, advocacy manager for the Employment Justice Center, based in Washington.

The reason? A 2012 report from the Progressive States Network noted that the ratio of federal Department of Labor enforcement agents to U.S. workers has fallen from one for every 11,000 in 1941 to one for every 141,000 today.

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