Regulating Wage Theft

64 Pages Posted: 26 Sep 2018 Last revised: 2 Jun 2019

See all articles by Jennifer J. Lee

Jennifer J. Lee

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Annie Smith

University of Arkansas - School of Law

Date Written: September 24, 2018


Wage theft costs workers billions of dollars each year. At a time when the federal government is rolling back workers’ rights, it is essential to consider how state and local laws can address the problem. As this Article explains, these pernicious practices seemingly continue unabated, despite a recent wave of state and local laws to curtail wage theft.

This Article provides the first comprehensive analysis of state and local anti-wage theft laws. We compiled 130 state and local anti-wage theft laws enacted over the past decade and offer an original typology of the most common anti-wage theft regulatory strategies. Our evaluation of these laws shows that they are unlikely to meaningfully reduce wage theft. Specifically, our typology reveals that many of the most popular anti-wage theft strategies involve authorizing worker complaints, creating or enhancing penalties, or mandating employers to disclose information to workers about their wage-related rights. Lessons learned about these conventional regulatory strategies from other contexts raise serious questions about whether these state and local laws can be successful.

Rather than concede defeat, this Article contends that there are useful insights to be drawn from the typology and analysis. It concludes by recognizing promising regulatory innovations, identifying new collaborative approaches to enhance agency enforcement, and looking beyond regulation to nongovernmental strategies.

Keywords: wage theft, wage and hour law, workers' rights, worker movements, workplace legislation, state and local legislation

JEL Classification: J3, J38, J8, J83, J88, Z18

Suggested Citation

Lee, Jennifer Jung Wuk and Smith, Annie, Regulating Wage Theft (September 24, 2018). 94 Wash. L. Rev. 759 (2019); Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-31. Available at SSRN:

Jennifer Jung Wuk Lee (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

Annie Smith

University of Arkansas - School of Law ( email )

260 Waterman Hall
Fayetteville, AR 72701
United States

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