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Employers could face tougher penalties for wage theft under Minnesota bill

Kevin Osborn, a Minneapolis line cook, on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, told reporters at the Capitol about his experience having employers short his paycheck. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota panel on Wednesday, Feb. 6, passed a bill that would outlaw the practice of wage theft by employers.

The House Labor Committee advanced a proposal that would make stealing employees' wages a gross misdemeanor, require employers to submit records to the Commissioner of Labor if requested and set a $10,000 fine if they refuse to share those documents. It would also bar employers from retaliating against an employee that reports wage theft to the state.

Several workers who had their paychecks withheld spoke about their experiences of being shorted by employers and working for several days without pay. They asked lawmakers to pass the bill to give workers additional protection from employer retaliation if they report their cases to the state.

Opponents from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and a spokesman for builders and contractors in the state said they worried the measure would penalize employers that make "honest mistakes" and would deny them due process in defending themselves against complaints.

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry received about 39,000 reports of wage theft last year, which totaled more than $12 million in lost wages. That should raise red flags for Minnesotans, said bill sponsor Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul.

"In Minnesota, if your work eight hours a day, you should get paid for eight hours a day," Mahoney said.

Kevin Osborn, who works as a line cook in Minneapolis, said wage theft is common in restaurants and workers feared having their hours cut for reporting or speaking out about the practice.

"We're working often, in the restaurant industry, 50-60 hours a week and getting paid for 30 or 40," he said.

Spokespeople for businesses in the state said the proposal could penalize "good apple" employers who aren't stealing employee pay. Adam Hanson, a lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors of Minnesota/North Dakota, said the Department of Labor and Industry already goes after businesses that withhold employee pay.

“Wage theft is already illegal,” Hanson said.

The bill moves next to the House Ways and Means Committee to be referred to the House Judiciary, Finance and Civil Law Division.