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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The issue of unpaid wages has been an ongoing challenge for workers across Rhode Island.

In February, Target 12 reviewed data showing hundreds of workers across the state have not been paid by their employer leaving them either file a complaint with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT) or sue them in Federal Court — a process that can take months and years.

Workers and advocates called on lawmakers during a rally at the Rhode Island State House Tuesday to change wage theft from a misdemeanor to a felony.

R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha has pushed for legislation each year since he took office in 2019.

“In Rhode Island, if I steal $10,000 of your wages, it’s always a misdemeanor,” Neronha said. “If I steal your refrigerator and it’s over $1,000 – it’s a felony. Think about that for a minute.”

Neronha and DLT Director Matt Weldon argue the penalties associated with wage theft aren’t strong enough in Rhode Island.

The DLT estimates it recovered about $1.6 million of unpaid wages unlawfully withheld from more than 500 employees from 2020 through 2022. The state estimates it has about an 80% success rate in helping workers recover unpaid wages.

Rep. David Morales is one of four state lawmakers supporting the bill, which he said ensures workers get paid.

“We need to pass these laws to ensure our workers are protected,” Morales said.

Under the proposed legislation, employers found guilty of withholding more than $1,500 could face up to three years in prison.

“Wage theft is theft,” Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos said. “People should be punished accordingly and we are not going to put up with that till the law is changed.”

If employers who owe more than $10,000 could face up to 10 years behind bars.

“It is the workers that have built Rhode Island. It is not the people in the fancy suits,” Morales said.

The bill has been referred to the House and Senate judiciary committees.

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