PORTLAND, Ore.— Thousands of Oregon workers are the victims of wage theft. In some cases, they're not getting the minimum wage. Companies aren't paying overtime. And some bosses are cheating on time sheets.
"We know there are folks out there that get shorted on the job, probably many more than come knocking on our door," said Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.
"It's a serious problem," he said.
Things just didn't add up for Ellen Parkinson. For seven years, she worked long hours as a home healthcare worker, but her paycheck never showed any overtime.
"Working for 51 hours a week and thinking you're going to have a really good paycheck because you got this overtime. Then, you look at it and there is no overtime," explained the Troutdale woman.
Parkinson figures she lost nearly $10,000 in unpaid wages. It was money she deserved, but her boss refused to pay.
"There's just so many others who have gone through the same thing," said Parkinson.
The Oregon Center for Public Policy analyzed 1,100 claims filed with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries between July 2013 and June 2014. OCPP found 24 percent of the claims involved concerns over minimum wage violations.
"Violations were more common amongst restaurants and bars, staffing agencies and amongst office cleaning agencies," said Janet Bauer, policy analysts with OCPP.
The problem is often underreported because workers are reluctant to complain. "Typically, they are scared to lose their job," explained Bauer.
"If you don't speak up for your rights and for yourself you won't be heard and changes won't be made," explained Parkinson.
Through a civil lawsuit, the home healthcare worker was able to collect a portion of the overtime she deserved.
The state labor department encourages workers to check their pay stubs and tax records. And if things don't add up— let them know.
"We can go to the employer, we can get all of the payroll records. We can match that against what the employee said. We will do a full investigation to make sure this worker has been treated fairly," explained Commissioner Avakian.
Collecting stolen wages is yet another challenge.
OCPP analysis shows in cases where state regulators concluded employers failed to pay workers, those companies ended up paying only a small percentage of the money owed.
The Oregon legislature is tackling the issue of wage theft. Several pieces of legislation have been proposed that would make it easier to collect stolen wages and then return that money to unpaid workers.
"It's a serious problem that Oregon needs to confront," said Bauer.