Crisis of Wage Theft or A Bonanza for Lawyers?

George Pinn

George Pinn, left, and his attorney Matthew Sutter meet at the spot where the carousel was once located. Pinn’s former employer still owes him $1,500. (Credit: Michael Pope)

What happens if your employer never gives you your last paycheck. It happens frequently, and sometimes employees get the money they are owed. But often times they don’t.

And, as Michael Pope reports, one reason for that is how Virginia law works.

It’s late afternoon on a weekday, and George Pinn is returning to the Springfield Mall for the first time in two years.

“It kinda sucks, you know what I’m saying. I put in a lot of work for these people. And I feel like I brought these people a lot of money.”

He’s talking about that job he used to have here as a cashier for a carousel ride, a job he had until one day the carousel disappeared.

“The next thing you know I come to find out they just left — like the Colts did to Baltimore, that’s what they did. They pulled their truck up and rolled out.”

Rolled out of town and ghosted the man who worked twelve hour shifts for weeks at a time.

“Even to this day I still have not heard anything from these people.”

Like thousands of workers in Virginia, George Pinn is a victim of wage theft. His employer owed him about fifteen hundred dollars, and he needed a lawyer to help him collect. He eventually found one, Matthew Sutter. But there was a problem: how to pay the lawyer?

“My hourly fee, as set by the court, is $425 an hour. So in order to take a case like this and make it cost efficient it’s virtually impossible.”

Pope: “So you’re essentially doing this job either for free or at a loss to yourself, is that right?”

“Well somebody’s gotta do it. And nobody else is doing it. So I do it.”

In Maryland, victims of wage theft don’t have a hard time finding lawyers because people who have been cheated can get triple damages. And In D.C. they can get quadruple damages. And attorneys fees. But in Virginia, they can only get the amount of money that’s owed to them and no more. That makes it difficult, if not impossible to find a lawyer.

“A lot of these folks are undocumented. A lot of the folks don’t speak English. And a lot of the folks are frankly scared to collect their wages.”

Allowing victims of wage theft to receive triple damages or layers fees would create a system where they could hire lawyers. But Jodi Roth at Virginia Retail Federation says there may be downside.

“This would open the floodgates to necessary litigation where people might falsely accuse an employer of this because this would now be in place.”

Pope: “But it would also open up the floodgates to people getting money that they are owed, right?”

“Sure, absolutely. People should be able to get money that they are owed. And I would think that the law covers that.”

Most other states allow double damages or triple damages or lawyers fees or some way for low-income people to hire lawyers to take their cases. Virginia does not. So changing any part of the law may, in fact, open up the floodgates.

“It may produce many lawsuits because we have a crisis of wage theft in Virginia.”

That’s Kim Bobo at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“And so to have a new avenue for workers to recover those unpaid wages and for us as a society to stop and deter wage theft would be a terrific thing for Virginia.”

For now, though, low-income workers like George Pinn have to rely on luck to find lawyers like Matthew Sutter, lawyers willing to take on the cases for free. Even then they still might not end up with the money they’re owed.

“Well the resolution is that we have a lien on a piece of property that appears to be underwater, and we’re waiting to get paid.”

Pope: “And how long has this been going on?”

“The lien was recorded about two years ago, and in Virginia it’ll be good for 20 years. So maybe in 20 years at the rate of six percent interest, George and I can sit together and have an iced tea or take our medicine together at the nursing home and somehow split that fifteen hundred dollars.”

This year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Richmond will be working to create a new system to help victims of wage theft, people at the bottom end of the economic scale who could never afford to hire a lawyer. And lobbyists for business groups are already lining up to oppose the idea as a bonanza for lawyers, and an invitation to what they view as unnecessary lawsuits.

I’m Michael Pope.

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