Since 1986, the Work Environment Council of New Jersey has fought for safe, secure jobs and a healthy sustainable environment. We’ve spent years working to link workers, communities, and environmental activists through training, grassroots organizing, and policy campaigns. First and foremost, WEC is concerned with public health and the well-being of workers. But it’s important that while we maintain a broad vision in defining public health, that we address the economic policy that keeps working people and communities in danger.

That’s one reason why WEC supports A862, a bill which strengthens protections for workers against wage theft. The bill, which passed out of the Assembly Labor Committee on December 12, would deter employers from committing wage theft by strengthening penalties, increasing the amount of time a worker has to file a claim, protecting workers who file claims from retaliation, and by holding employers who use subcontractors accountable.

How is wage theft connected to public health, though? Aren’t wages and labor economic practices a separate issue from public health? In fact, an economy that is dependent on wage theft and low wages is extremely damaging to public wellbeing. When a family worries about how they will pay for groceries, their health is in jeopardy. When a worker cannot take sick time from work, their own health and the health of their co-workers and their families are in jeopardy.

These struggles, the dilemmas that working people confront every day, are exacerbated considerably when a worker must wait longer than expected for payment, are denied payment, or if they’re forced to work off the clock.

But ensuring that workers are paid, and that they have access to basic accommodations like paid sick leave, isn’t just compassion; it’s pragmatism. An economy that is dependent on low wages and wage theft shifts hidden costs onto taxpayers; when business owners don’t concern themselves with the health or even the survival of their employees, that burden is placed on the rest of us. In fact, in New Jersey, it’s estimated that the hidden cost of low-wage work, paid by taxpayers, is $3.3 billion dollars a year, with an underestimated $726 million coming from state taxpayers.

Nationally, an estimated 26% of low-wage workers are victims of wage theft in the United States. When employers steal wages, or pay low wages, they jeopardize the safety and health of that worker, and our communities, and they raise our taxes and shift the responsibility onto taxpayers while doing it.

The time is now to understand that economic issues do not exist in a vacuum: issues of wages, investment, and finance aren’t just numbers. These issues are social, and they affect real workers and individuals. A pragmatic economy is a compassionate one, and an economy that works for everyone is the only economy that works.