Your Friend, 820 ILCS 115

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Yours Truly having just filed a Wage Claim against a nonprofit English-as-a-Second-Language school in Pilsen, a former part-time employer, for pay deliberately and illegally withheld, I think it time to meditate on the best friend an Illinois hourly worker ever had. Yes, friends, I could be talking about none other than 820 ILCS 115–the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act. If you’re a wage-earner in Illinois, this Act’s got you covered, and woe to the employer who thinks IDoL (the Illinois Department of Labor, for the acronym-challenged among us) doesn’t take 820 ILCS 115 seriously.

The Act protects wage earners by establishing specific rights under law that an Illinois employer cannot transgress. Think you know what your employer isn’t allowed to do? Hmm, did you know 820 ILCS 115 says…

…Your employer cannot withhold or deduct wages for any reason (other than a court order or a benefits package) without your prior written consent?

…Your employer cannot fail to pay you at least twice a month on a payday specified in advance?

…Your final earned paycheck cannot be reduced for any reason, including damaged or unreturned property?

…You have a right to receive your final paycheck by mail postmarked no later than the payday following your separation?

Or my personal favorite…the deposit of a paycheck from which funds have been illegally withheld cannot be interpreted to mean that you consented to such a withholding?

What happens if your employer, er, disagrees with your rights under 820 ILCS 115? Well, for starters you can file a Wage Claim with IDoL’s Fair Labor Standards Office. If your employer balks at the IDoL investigator who calls them, they can find themselves sitting across a table from you at an arbitration hearing…or defending themselves in court for a variety of misdemeanors and possibly higher charges.

Beyond workers, there are many employers out there who are not aware of these requirements. In this writer’s experience, far too many of these employers operate fly-by-night, nonprofit community language schools in the Mexican newcomer community in Chicago. Being a community organization or a small nonprofit is no shield from the necessity to follow state labor law. But some such organizations bank on the fact that their employees will either be too committed to the mission, or too uninformed about their labor rights, to complain. I have even seen this come down to the highly illegal requirement of enforcement of “volunteer” work in order to be paid at a community language school currently operating in Humboldt Park.

Employers who try to get over on their employees are doing their employees a disservice–and courting legal action, of course. But community institutions that try to graft their workers out of rightfully earned pay in order to, say, generate a float in case a hoped-for grant doesn’t arrive on time to meet the payroll, or who attempt to coerce their staff to do work for which neither were they hired nor will they be justly compensated, well that just brings down the community. That brings down us all.

There are many staunchly ethical nonprofits out there (not the least of which the wonderful urban land trust for which I happily toil by day), fulfilling community-minded missions and working to better the world in which we all must live. But when a professed community institution decides ethics are optional, that’s when real damage is done. Employees lose faith. The people served lose faith. And someone has to speak up.

And sometimes, you have to rely on 820 ILCS 115. Most especially if you work for a nonprofit ESL school serving Chicago’s Mexican community.

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