Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America's Cities

Awarded Scholars:
Annette Bernhardt, National Employment Law Project
Nikolas Theodore, University of Illinois, Chicago
Project Date:
Nov 2008
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Future of Work


In June 2006, Russell Sage funded an innovative worker survey intended to provide the first statistically reliable estimates of the scale and scope of workplace violations in the three largest U.S. labor markets:  Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. Under the direction of Annette Bernhardt (National Employment Law Project), Douglas Heckathorn (Cornell University), Ruth Milkman (University of California, Los Angeles), and Nik Theodore (University of Illinois, Chicago), the investigators conducted over 4,200 surveys of workers in low-wage industries – creating a comprehensive dataset on such workplace violations as minimum wage and overtime violations, hazardous working conditions, discrimination, and retaliation for speaking up or trying to organize. 


The investigators compiled the results in a groundbreaking national report, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities. The study exposes systemic and routine violations of employment and labor laws in core sectors of the economy. The data offers advocates and policymakers the first reliable portrait of the magnitude of the problem, the workers who are most affected, and the industries that are the biggest culprits.

Among the findings:

  • Workplace violations are severe and widespread in the low-wage labor market. In our sample, 26% of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior to the survey, and 76% of those who worked more than 40 hours were not paid the legally required overtime rate.  
  • Job and employer characteristics are key to understanding workplace violations. For example, the industry and occupation of a worker's job was one of the strongest predictors of violations. 
  • All workers—regardless of legal status, race, gender and nativity—are at risk of workplace violations, though some groups are more vulnerable than others. 
  • More than two-thirds of our sample experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week. Assuming a full-time, full-year work schedule, we estimate that workers lose an average of $2,634 annually due to workplace violations, out of total earnings of $17,616.

Related RSF Resources:


Low-Wage America: The most extensive study to date of how the choices employers make in response to economic globalization, industry deregulation, and advances in information technology affect the lives of tens of millions of workers at the bottom of the wage distribution.

Low-Wage Work in the Wealthy World: A comparison of the plight of low-wage workers in the United States to five European countries—Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


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