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Deterring Wage Theft: Alt-Labor, State Politics, and the Policy Determinants of Minimum Wage Compliance

Abstract

Can stronger state-level public policies help protect workers from “wage theft?” In recent years, workers' rights groups have responded to policy drift and legislative inaction at the national level by launching campaigns to enact stronger penalties for wage and hour violations at the state level. Many of these campaigns have been legislatively successful and formative for the development of “alt-labor.” But are such policies actually effective in deterring wage theft? Previous scholarship has long concluded that although stronger penalties should theoretically make a difference, in practice, they do not. But by confining the analysis to the admittedly weak national-level regulatory regime, the existing literature has eliminated all variation from the costs side of the equation and overlooked the rich variety of employment laws that exist at the state level. Using an original dataset of state laws, new estimates of minimum wage violations, and difference-in-differences analyses of a dozen recently enacted “wage-theft laws,” I find that stronger penalties can, in fact, serve as an effective deterrent against wage theft, but the structure of the policy matters a great deal, as does its enforcement. The implications for workers' rights and the changing shape of the labor movement are discussed in detail.

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