Wage theft, the loss of income due to unpaid work, lost benefits and pay below the minimum wage, costs Americans millions of dollars every year.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, about $930 million was recovered to victims of wage theft in 2012—not accounting for victims who didn’t submit claims. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has been cracking down on wage theft in Massachusetts, starting with community outreach. 

In partnership with the Massachusetts Immigrants and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the Attorney General’s Office hosted a free clinic at the Suffolk Law School for victims of wage theft to meet with lawyers and advocacy groups. 

The free clinic is also an effort to divert the volume of victims seeking reparations. According to Cindy Mark, Chief of the AG's Fair Labor Division, there are just too many cases of wage theft for the Attorney General’s office to process.

“Every year, the Attorney General’s office gets over 6,000 complaints from workers that, honestly, we can’t handle," she said. "We cannot investigate and enforce 6,000 complaints every year.” 

Wage theft extends beyond just not being paid. It also includes failure to pay for overtime, working off the clock, being paid under the state minimum wage and illegal salary deductions. Michael Denham, a practitioner with Lawyers for Affordable Justice, said many people “don’t realize they’re being taken advantage of by their employers.” And if they do, he said, they often feel helpless. 

A majority of wage theft victims are low-income earners and immigrants. Lydia Ferreira, an organizer for the Brazilian Women’s Group, said undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable because they won’t seek reparations out of fear of deportation. 

“Unfortunately, without information, they are very afraid,” Ferreira said. 

In Massachusetts, however, immigration status doesn’t matter in cases of wage theft. State labor laws still include undocumented workers, and threatening to report a worker to immigration authorities in retaliation for complaining about wage theft is illegal.

“You’re still entitled to be paid for the hours that you worked,” said Denham, “Even if you’re an undocumented or unauthorized immigrant, you’re still entitled to the protection of the law.”

Some lawmakers want to strengthen the AG office's ability to enforce the laws, but a bill to do so was slowed by business groups this past session. Though it passed the Senate, the bill was stifled in the House. Advocates are expected to return to the bill next year to seek a compromise version that House Leadership can approve.