December 24, 2015. The Post and Courier.

Low-income workers in Charleston County who’ve been illegally shorted pay or benefits can now take advantage of the state’s only Wage Recovery Program, an outgrowth of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s yearlong effort to address the rampant problem.

The social justice organization successfully advocated Charleston County to fund the hiring by South Carolina Legal Services of a full-time attorney and part-time paralegal who will work exclusively on wage theft cases. Wage attorney Stephanie M. van der Horst says she anticipates handling 150 cases over the coming year.

“We’ve even recovered money already,” says van der Horst, who joined the statewide law firm just last month.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage theft – which includes fraudulently adjusting time cards; failing to correctly calculate overtime and taking employees’ tips — may cost American workers as much as $50 billion a year. Although the phenomenon isn’t isolated to a single industry, it’s most prevalent in the retail; construction; home health care and food-and-beverage sectors.

“All of our faith traditions call for the fair treatment of workers,” Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim and CAJM Co-President is quoted as saying in a release announcing the program. “When thousands of our workers in our community are not being paid the wages they are due, we are all negatively impacted.”

Prior to the creation of van der Horst’s position, South Carolina Legal Services was technically equipped to handle wage claims, but few potential clients realized they had legal recourse when they were asked to work off the clock or pay steep fees for uniforms and broken dishes.

“Our clients don’t have enough money to retain an attorney, so employers were getting away with it,” van der Horst says. “Even the Department of Labor, they can’t help you get your money: All they do is punish the employer.”

To qualify for the Wage Recovery Program, workers must live or work in Charleston County and earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Workers who contact the office will be asked a series of questions so van der Horst can determine their eligibility. “Even if they don’t have any documents, I want to talk to them,” she says, acknowledging the casual nature of pay in many restaurants.

Workers who believe they have experienced wage theft can call South Carolina Legal Services’ new dedicated hotline at 843-720-7044, extension 2178. Van der Horst in February will also be speaking about the Wage Recovery Program at branch libraries: She’s scheduled to visit Hurd/St. Andrews on Feb. 3; John L. Dart on Feb. 18 and Cooper River Memorial on Feb. 18. All sessions begin at 6 p.m.

“Hopefully we’ll be funded again next year,” van der Horst says. “(The county) hasn’t committed as of today.”