Every time Nancy C. filled out her time sheet for the United States Postal Service, she would take a picture of it with her phone.
“I knew what was going to happen,” she told a reporter from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), “because it happens every pay period.”
Two weeks later, she would receive her check – and her hours would have been altered. Lowered. Shorted. In the week the CPI observed, her overtime had been shorted by six hours – about $200 in lost wages.
She’s not the only USPS employee to complain about altered time sheets and shorted pay. Between 2010 and 2019, according to the CPI’s investigation, at least 250 supervisors in at least 60 post offices got caught changing mail carriers’ timecards to cut hours and thus underpay wages. The CPI discovered this by poring over arbitration award summaries in cases brought by postal worker unions.
Unfortunately, these arbitration awards didn’t stop the practice. The managers who were caught changing timecards were rarely disciplined, even though the federal Labor Department has cited the USPS 1,150 times since 2005. The Labor Department determined that postal workers had lost about $659,000 in pay – but it negotiated this number down to less than half, a common practice.
This isn’t a complete picture of the potential wage theft at the postal service, according to the CPI. It doesn’t include arbitrations brought by other parties or any grievances that were settled before reaching arbitration. It’s a systemic problem at the cash-strapped agency.
Could wage theft be occurring at your workplace?
Wage theft is basically any shortage of an employee’s rightful pay. It involves things like those reported at the USPS – changing timecards to record fewer hours or less overtime. It can involve deliberately misclassifying workers as exempt from overtime or as independent contractors so that no overtime is paid. It can even involve refusal to pay workers at all, in some cases.
Other examples include:
- Requiring workers to work off the clock
- Denying meal and rest breaks
- Taking illegal deductions from workers’ wages
- Confiscating tips or not making up the minimum wage when tips are insufficient
Unfortunately, the practice is relatively common. In 2017, the Economic Policy Institute found that, in 10 states alone, 2.4 million workers were shorted $8 billion annually – nearly a quarter of their earned wages. The practice disproportionately affects low-wage workers with little power to fight back. New York ranked third in states where wage theft is likely to occur.
The minimum wage and overtime are required for most workers by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York law. Employers are not free to adjust the base wage or deny overtime to most workers.