BOSTON (SHNS) – Vulnerable workers, including immigrants who don’t know their rights or are fearful of employer retaliation, could gain stronger protections against pervasive wage theft under legislation that is supported by the state’s top prosecutor and Gov. Maura Healey but has failed to win over Democrats on Beacon Hill for years.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell testified in support of legislation to crack down on wage theft during a Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development hearing Tuesday. [Alison Kuznitz/SHNS]

Attorney General Andrea Campbell on Tuesday publicly voiced her support for proposals that would strengthen her office’s authority to crack down on wage theft and protect Massachusetts from lost economic growth, jobs and taxes. The latest version of the bill is being billed as a compromise between labor and business.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Daniel Donahue and Sen. Sal DiDomenico (H 1868 / S 1158) would allow Campbell to file a civil action seeking injunctive relief for damages, lost wages and other benefits for workers. Campbell would also have the authority to investigate wage theft complaints and seek civil remedies for violations, as well as issue stop work orders against contractors or businesses who are violating wage theft provisions.

“Access to a decent paying job and benefits is absolutely essential to ensuring economic security for individuals and their families,” Campbell told the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development during a hearing Tuesday afternoon. “We know passing a strong, and smart, and effective wage bill is crucial.”

Some $1 billion in wages are stolen each year in the commonwealth by employers and contractors, and workers recoup less than 2 percent of their stolen pay, according to data from the Wage Theft Coalition led by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Meanwhile, when DiDomenico first filed his bill in 2015, stolen wages totaled roughly $300 million, he told the committee.

The Senate passed wage theft bills in 2016 and 2018, but House Democrats have not pushed the topic to the floor for a debate and vote.

Campbell’s testimony echoes the support of Healey, who as attorney general also advocated for stronger wage theft laws and in fiscal 2022 issued more than 200 citations against 100 construction companies for violating state labor laws.

Healey, in a letter sent to committee members before the hearing Tuesday, urged lawmakers to favorably advance the wage theft proposals to keep the state affordable and competitive. The bills from DiDomenico and Donahue also come amid rising costs for rent, groceries, child care and health care, Healey said in the letter, which was shared with the News Service.

“When workers lose billions of dollars in stolen wages, it can mean the difference between facing foreclosure or keeping their homes, experiencing food insecurity or providing for their families, or accessing life-saving medical treatment,” Healey said. “Workers are more likely to contribute to our economy when they are shielded from wage theft, and businesses are more inclined to invest and remain in our state when we level the playing field for those who adhere to the law.”

Redrafted wage theft legislation from Donahue and DiDomenico last session was reported favorably by the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, but the House Ways and Means Committee, under chairman Aaron Michlewitz, took no further action on it. The proposals before the committee Tuesday represent a compromise between the business community, labor unions and community organizations, according to co-chair Rep. Josh Cutler and the Wage Theft Coalition.

Victims of wage theft — including individuals who didn’t realize they were supposed to be paid for overtime, sick time or holidays until joining unions — shared their stories with lawmakers, as union leaders also sought to emphasize just how common the problem is in construction, manufacturing, food service and other sectors.

“We all know that low-wage work is often highly racialized and gendered, meaning that women, people of color, immigrants, are more likely to be impacted by wage theft since it is more prevalent in low-wage industries and jobs,” Darlene Lombos, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, said at the hearing.

Rep. Aaron Saunders, a committee member, said the issue is especially relevant as thousands of immigrant families are coming to Massachusetts and awaiting their work authorizations to support themselves financially. Saunders asked his colleagues to remember that new arrivals are “exactly the folks who are most likely to be exploited by wage theft.”

Under the legislation this session, lead contractors would be subject to joint and several civil liability for wage theft from labor contractors and subcontractors, as would labor contractors for wage theft stemming from subcontractors.

The proposals also include whistleblower protections for workers, and they look to provide a level playing field for contractors that are adhering to wage laws but are losing out to low bids from competitors whose business model is based on wage theft, advocates told lawmakers.

“This legislation is a desperately needed lifeline for both suffering workers and honest employers,” Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said at the hearing. “Our wage enforcement laws must be updated to reflect the changing reality of how employers are taking advantage of current laws and that means creating liability all the way up the contracting chain.”