PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — CBS News Philadelphia has learned $7.5 million dollars was returned to workers in Pennsylvania who were shortchanged by their companies last year. Now, a Philadelphia woman is on a mission to help even more workers get the money that’s owed to them.
Katherine Coker of Manayunk has built a fan base on TikTok, not for her dance moves, but for her dozens of videos about what’s called wage theft.
Wage theft means workers not getting money they earned.
Coker says she faced her own issues while working at a Philadelphia restaurant.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Coker said. “Your bills don’t stop coming just because your paycheck didn’t arrive.”
She posted a video to TikTok after she says she had delays with two paychecks in a row.
“It got a lot of attention kind of immediately,” Coker said. “Within 24 to 48 hours, I had 60,000 views.”
After her first TikTok, Coker quickly received the check she was owed for $519. Then she quit her job.
“Our goal is just to spread awareness,” Coker said.
She has since mounted a campaign on TikTok that’s all about wage theft to help workers who may be owed money.
“Wage theft is rampant,” said Temple Law professor Jennifer Lee.
Lee co-wrote a 2020 study about wage theft for the Sheller Center for Social Justice. She says, city and statewide, more can be done to help workers.
“There are governmental agencies where you can file complaints,” Lee said. “The problem is, is that the agencies don’t take every case, they don’t work very quickly and as you know, if you’re missing wages, you need your wages immediately.”
Coker, the TikToker, says she 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?” CBS News Philadelphia reporter Matt Petrillo asked Bryan Smolock, the labor law compliance director at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.
“Someone should hear within that same week they file a claim with us,” Smolock replied.
Smolock says if people don’t hear back within a week, they should follow up.
“Our bureau works to have employers held accountable,” Smolock said.
Data we obtained from the Labor and Industry Department shows it reviews about 5,000 complaints about labor law violations a year. Between 45% and 55% of investigated cases result in a collection. Last year, the department returned about $7.5 million to workers.
It’s a lot of owed money, but Smolock says non-payment or delays are not always intentional.
“How does that happen?” Matt Petrillo asked.
“There could be misunderstanding of potential nitty gritty overtime provisions,” Smolock said. “There could be some regulatory changes that were made in which some employers are not really up on.”
Still, some businesses get away with ripping off workers without consequences, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia.
“There are predatory business practices and predatory business owners that are out there, particularly in the restaurant industry,” said Calvin Okunoye of the Restaurant Opportunities Center. “It happens a lot honestly.”
That’s why Katherine Coker continues to post new videos on her Tik Tok page. She has this advice for workers who are owed money from their employer.
“Make some noise, you know,” she said. “I mean, public pressure matters.”
Pennsylvania workers can file a wage theft complaint here: https://www.dli.pa.gov/Individuals/Labor-Management-Relations/llc/Pages/Wage-Payment.aspx
Workers in Philadelphia can also file complaints with the city’s Department of Labor Office of Worker Protections at (215) 686-0802:
New Jersey workers can file a wage theft complaint here: https://www.nj.gov/labor/wageandhour/claims-appeals-investigations/
Delaware workers can file a wage theft complaint with the Delaware Department of Labor: https://laborfiles.delaware.gov/main/dia/olle/Wage%20Payment%20Claim%20Form.pdf
The U.S. Department of Labor also has a searchable database where workers can see if they’re owed any back wages awarded by the federal department of labor.