Thousands of South Carolinians don’t get the money they earned at work. It’s called “wage theft” and federal records show more than $18 million dollars in back wages paid by the state’s employers after failing to meet federal law.
Laurin Stinson served drinks at a Greenville County restaurant. She waited tables and severed drinks from behind the bar earning tips in addition to her paycheck. Laruin said her boss, the owner of the restaurant, was pocketing some of those tips for himself.
“You basically, out of your money that you get through the day, your tips, you would give them a share of it,” Stinson said.
Laurin’s former boss said that wasn’t true. He said Laurin failed to show up for work and that none of her co-workers had a wage issue. (Correction : A prior version of this story said Laurin was fired. Her former employer said that was not true but Lauirn lost her job after she stopped showing up) Still, after she filed a civil lawsuit, a judge ordered the Hans and Franz Beirgarten to pay Larurin and her lawyer more than $40 thousand dollars for violations of a federal law called the Fair Labor Standards Act.
A 7 On Your Side Investigation analyzed federal records provided by the US Department of Labor. The data shows more than 26 thousand wage theft reports related to FLSA since 2005. There were 15 hundred employers statewide who agreed to pay back wages totaling more than $18 million in that time.
The records show wage theft occurred in every Upstate county.
“It happens every day,” said employment attorney Brian Murphy. “In Greenville County, every day.”
The data shows some professions are more likely to have problems with wage theft. In South Carolina 5% of cases reported to the Labor Department happened at hotels and motels, 8% in construction jobs, and 28%, by far the largest share, involved some kind of restaurant.
“A lot of folks in those industries don’t have a lot of other options so they accept it trying to stay employed trying to get what they can,” Murphy said.
Bronco is a small chain of restaurants, mostly in Spartanburg County, that serves Mexican food. Last December the Bronco was busted. The US Department of Labor sued 5 of the restaurants in federal court alleging the chain failed to pay employees minimum wage and that some worked more than 40 hours a week without collecting overtime. In 5 separate judgements the court ruled Bronco owed 31 employees more than $180,000 in back pay.
Attorney Courtney Atkinson has defended several Upstate employers in FLSA cases. She said it’s not always a case of a company trying to pull a fast one.
“The majority of the cases that I have seen are employer error and not intentional,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson said the problem is that the law can be confusing and leave well-intentioned employers owing large and sometimes crippling settlements like the one owed by Bronco restaurants. At least one location of that chain shut down after the judge’s ruling.
Stinson said she thinks many workers fail to complain in order to protect what pay they are able to earn.
“Everybody’s got to earn a paycheck so sometimes you take the good with the bad,” she said.
If you think you’ve been a victim of wage theft there are several things to keep in mind. Immigration status does not matter. Even someone who is working as an undocumented immigrant can file a wage complaint.
It is also against the law for an employer to retaliate against a worker for filing a complaint.
If you have a FLSA violation complaint, meaning you think you didn’t get the minimum wage or didn’t get paid your overtime, you can call 1-866-uswage.