You would think there were enough laws on the books already. But, no. Whenever a set of events elicits enough public outrage it doesn’t take long for new laws and regulation to follow.
It’s easy to dismiss the Enron and Worldcom debacles and the adoption of the Sarbannes-Oxley Act , designed to provide more financial transparency, as something that only affects the big boys. The same goes for all the prospective financial regulation, including the say on executive pay, that is being currently being bandied about in response to the financial crisis.
But the same dynamic of new laws being proposed and created when big boys behave badly is not limited to Wall Street. It gets played out on Main Street everyday, albeit on a smaller scale. Take for example the story about the Board of Aldermen in Carrboro, North Carolina who are exploring the criminalization of “wage theft.”
Wage theft? What’s wage theft?
Wage theft occurs when you employ someone and then don’t pay them. It’s happening to Latino day laborers who gather on certain street corners in search of work in Carrboro and according to the local Human Rights Center, some of these workers hadn’t been paid in over a month. As a result they are unable to pay their rent, put food on the table for their families, or otherwise contribute to the community.
But before you throw immigration status on the table, please note that the Wage and Hour Bureau at the North Carolina Department of Labor takes the view that immigration status is unrelated to an employee’s right to get paid. Immigration status does not allow an employer to take unfair advantage. Employees they deserve to be properly paid for their labor. Period.
Employers usually pony up when the Wage and Hour Bureau gets involved. But as a practical matter, many of the Latinos fear government agencies and don’t press their claims. It’s an awkward situation and one that unscrupulous people are taking advantage of.
The solution: more laws. This time, the criminalization of wage theft.
Proponents hope that criminalizing wage theft will sufficiently raise the consequences of not complying with the law to make scofflaw employers think twice about not paying proper wages. But what many folks don’t realize is that criminalizing wage theft will creates the risk of a double whammy. It still leaves employers open to civil liability. Forget double jeopardy.
Double jeopardy only protects against the same criminal charge being brought. It doesn’t immunize you or your company from civil liability – liability that can result from federal, state, or local laws, or all three simultaneously. It means that one fact pattern can therefore trigger multiple hits. The laws are piled higher and deeper. You might say that adding more avenues of recourse is society’s way of saying “can you hear me now?”