Low-wage workers experience wage theft – that is, employers’ failure to pay earned wages – at alarmingly high rates. Indeed, the number of wage and hour cases filed in federal and state courts and administrative agencies steadily increases every year. While much of the scholarly assessment of wage and hour litigation focuses on large collective and class actions involving hundreds or thousands of workers and millions of dollars in lost wages, the experiences of individual workers with small claims have received little attention. Furthermore, scholarly consideration of the justice gap in lower courts, more generally, has often focused on debt collection cases in which the individual denied justice is the defendant, not the plaintiff.
This article fills a significant gap in the literature by considering the experiences of individual low-wage workers who pursue their claims in the lower courts. In doing so, it identifies the difference between the law as written and the law as experienced by low-wage workers seeking to vindicate their substantive legal rights. After considering the challenges to adjudicating wage and hour cases in small claims courts, it argues that procedural informality and frequent absence of critical inquiry into the substantive legal issues create significant hurdles to low-wage workers’ ability to prevail on their claims. Indeed, despite the various protections provided by both federal and state wage and hour laws, courts adjudicating these claims often apply a breach of contract analysis that disadvantages vulnerable workers. This return to what I term a pre-New Deal, Lochnerian approach to wage and hour disputes runs afoul of Congress and state governments’ efforts to regulate the workplace and, particularly, to protect vulnerable low-wage workers.
This article argues that the challenge of injecting legal standards into small claims court requires the creative use of narrative and case theory to prevail in wage and hour claims. It also considers potential procedural changes, such as the introduction of specific pleadings and forms for wage and hour claims and state court judge trainings that would better enable pro se parties to assert their federal and state substantive wage and hour rights in small claims courts.
Green, Llezlie, Wage Theft in Lawless Courts (September 17, 2019). California Law Review, volume 107, no 1303, 2019.