Editorial: Kick companies engaging in wage theft out of O’Hare

SHARE Editorial: Kick companies engaging in wage theft out of O’Hare
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O’Hare janitors and other employees held a prayer vigil outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home when he decided to privatize their jobs in 2012. Sun-Times file photo by Andrew A. Nelles.

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If you take a job as an hourly worker, you expect to be paid for all the time you work. It’s a basic tenet of U.S. labor laws.

Minimum-wage hourly employees that work for contractors at O’Hare International Airport — the janitors, wheelchair attendants and low-level security workers — are complaining that they must work through breaks, start early or leave late without getting paid. If true, that’s wage theft.

These are serious allegations that call for vetting by City Hall, the Illinois Department of Labor and any of the airlines, including United and American, that have contracts with these companies. If back pay is owed, make sure the workers get it. Put the squeeze on companies to end this exploitive, sleazy practice.

The city must go a step further: If United Maintenance Co. Inc. is shorting janitors’ pay as alleged in a federal civil lawsuit it recently settled, sever the contract — worth about $100 million — that Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed four years ago.

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On Wednesday, the Sun-Times’ Dan Mihalopoulos reported that United agreed to pay nearly $850,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleged the company shorted the pay of low-wage janitors.

United Maintenance did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement. It’s up to the city to now conduct its own investigation. Don’t insult Chicagoans by using taxpayer money to pay a company if it doesn’t follow labor laws.

Other contractors also face allegations of wage theft. Employees of Chicago-based Scrub Inc. and Prospect Airport Services in Des Plaines have filed wage theft complaints with the Illinois Department of Labor and the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. The latter oversees enforcement of Chicago’s $10.50 minimum wage.

The complaints were filed through Service Employees International Union Local 1, which doesn’t represent the workers but wants to bring them under its umbrella.

In addition to janitors who say they aren’t being paid for all hours worked, wheelchair attendants say they aren’t being compensated by Prospect Airport Services when tips fail to bring their pay up to the minimum wage.

Many of these workers are immigrants and refugees. Some lack knowledge of American labor laws and haven’t mastered English. It makes them easy prey. The city and state labor department must look out for them.

But don’t let the airlines off the hook. They contract with these outside companies to clean the cabins of their planes. They’re accountable, too.

Low-wage workers keep America’s airports running smoothly. The American way requires that they get an honest day’s pay.

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