January 29, 2023

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — CBS News Philadelphia has learned that $7.5 million was returned to Pennsylvania workers who were underpaid by their companies last year. Now a Philadelphia woman is on a mission to help more workers get the money they’re owed.

Manayunk’s Katherine Coker has garnered a following on TikTok, not for her dance moves, but for her dozens of videos about so-called wage theft.

Wage theft means workers don’t get the money they deserve.

Coker says she faced her own problems while working at a Philadelphia restaurant.

“It was definitely frustrating,” said Coker. “Your bills don’t stop coming just because your paycheck didn’t arrive.”

She posted a video on TikTok after saying she’s been delayed with two straight paychecks.

“It immediately drew a lot of attention,” said Coker. “Within 24 to 48 hours I had 60,000 views.”

After her first TikTok, Coker quickly received the check owed her for $519. Then she quit her job.

“Our goal is just to spread awareness,” Coker said.

She has since launched a wage-stealing campaign on TikTok to help workers who may be owed money.

“Salary theft is rampant,” said Jennifer Lee, a professor of Temple Law.

Lee co-authored a 2020 study on wage theft for the Sheller Center for Social Justice. She says more can be done city and statewide to help workers.

“There are government agencies where you can file complaints,” Lee said. “The problem is that the agencies don’t take every case, they don’t work very quickly, and as you know, when you’re short of wages, you need your pay right away.”

Coker, the TikToker, says it filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry in July, but it took about two months to get a response.

“Is two months fast enough?” Matt Petrillo, a Philadelphia-based reporter for CBS News, asked Bryan Smolock, head of labor law compliance at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

“Someone should know within the same week that they’ve made a claim with us,” Smolock replied.

Smolock says if people don’t get a response within a week, they should follow up.

“Our office works to hold employers accountable,” Smolock said.

Data we received from the Department of Labor and Industry shows that it reviews approximately 5,000 complaints of labor rights violations annually. Between 45% and 55% of the cases examined result in a collection. Last year, the department returned about $7.5 million to workers.

It’s a lot of money owed, but Smolock says non-payment or delays aren’t always intentional.

“How does this happen?” asked Matt Petrillo.

“There could be some misunderstandings regarding possible material overtime regulations,” Smolock said. “There could be some regulatory changes that some employers aren’t really on top of.”

Still, some companies get away with ripping off workers with no consequences, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia.

“There are predatory business practices and predatory business owners that exist, particularly in the restaurant industry,” said Calvin Okunoye of the Restaurant Opportunities Center. “Honestly, a lot is happening.”

That’s why Katherine Coker keeps posting new videos on her Tik Tok page. She has this advice for workers who are owed money by their employer.

“Make noise, you know,” she said. “I mean, public pressure is important.”

Pennsylvania workers can file a wage theft claim here: https://www.dli.pa.gov/Individuals/Labor-Management-Relations/llc/Pages/Wage-Payment.aspx

Philadelphia workers may also file complaints with the City Department of Labor’s Employment Service at (215) 686-0802:

https://www.phila.gov/documents/wage-theft-complaint/

New Jersey workers can file a wage theft claim here: https://www.nj.gov/labor/wageandhour/claims-appeals-investigations/

Delaware workers can file a wage theft claim with the Delaware Department of Labor: https://laborfiles.delaware.gov/main/dia/olle/Wage%20Payment%20Claim%20Form.pdf

The US Department of Labor also has a searchable database that employees can use to see if they are owed arrears of wages awarded by the Federal Department of Labor.

https://webapps.dol.gov/wow/

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