In the continuing economic malaise, more and lower wage employees are experiencing problems with being properly paid by their employers.

Wage theft, as this is commonly known, most often occurs to workers in the low-income service fields such as construction, fast food, home health care, and warehousing. The theft can take the form of denying or stealing tips in restaurants, failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime, as well as making illegal deductions from paychecks for items like nonexistent uniforms.

For workers at small “Mom & Pop” firms, the situation often becomes a matter of “he said, she said” as their record keeping may not be on par with larger corporate businesses or the employees may be paid in cash without pay stubs or receipts. In a 2009 survey conducted and reported by Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, workers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City reported underpayment or non-payment of wages as well as a substantial amount of subminimum wages. The survey suggested that, on average, workers lost $50 per week.

Last year, Illinois joined a number of other states in strengthening the laws covering employees in these situations. The Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, or IWPCA, amendments gave employees more opportunities to pursue employers who haven’t properly paid them. The amendments allowed employees to not only receive the wages they were owed but also accessed a 2% penalty for each month until the wages were paid.

Cases are being handled more quickly but can still take months to investigate and resolve. An employee submits a wage theft claim at the Labor Department’s office or in the mail. The employer is notified of the claim and is given 15 days to respond. If there is no reply, the case is assigned to an investigator. If the employer claims they are innocent of the violation a hearing is arranged. In over 60% of the cases, the Labor Department determined that employees had a valid wage theft claim so the department issued letters to the employers demanding payment to be made. Unhappily, not all employers pay the entire amount nor do they pay in a timely manner.

It is up to you, as an employee, to know your rights. If you believe you have been treated unfairly by a current or past employer it may be necessary to contact an attorney.