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Wage-theft bill sparks debate about ‘repeated’ offenders

The Illinois State Capitol | AP file photo

SPRINGFIELD — Legislation that punishes employers in Illinois that short workers’ pay left Republican representatives with questions about the bill’s impact on state businesses.

The measure enhances penalties against companies convicted of wage theft; each day an employee’s paycheck is withheld would be a separate felony offense instead of a misdemeanor.

Businesses would also be barred from working with the state of Illinois for five years.

“This proposal will help working families by ensuring that any business that is willfully withholding wages is held accountable,” said state Rep. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, who sponsored the legislation.

But during floor debate, Republicans questioned whether Villanueva’s characterization of the bill accurately portrayed the practical effects it would have if signed into law.

Villanueva said her bill targets “bad actors” who “repeatedly and willfully engage in wage theft.”

Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, asked how many times an employer would need to be convicted before the enhanced penalties would go into effect.

Villanueva said it was “discretionary.”

This is the bill’s “weakness,” said

Steve Schwinn, a professor at The John Marshall Law School, said the bill’s weakness is that it lacks a definition of “repeatedly” or sets out when it is triggered.

“It starts to rack up pretty quickly,” he said. “If I were opposed to the bill, that’s what I would hang my hat on.”

The bill passed the House on a party-line vote of 69 to 43 earlier this month.

State Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, has taken up the bill in the Senate.

Villanueva said she plans to speak with Martinez about possible changes to clean up the measure’s language.

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