ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota lawmakers and labor leaders began a push Wednesday to stiffen penalties on employers who fail to pay workers the wages they're owed, a top priority for House Democrats this session.

They said state figures show that at least 40,000 Minnesota residents are victims of wage theft every year, costing them around $12 million in unpaid wages, and those are probably low numbers. And they said the state lacks sufficient power to help shortchanged workers recover the money they earned.

Rep. Tim Mahoney said at a news conference that the bill would "finally define in law that wage theft is illegal." It would beef up record-keeping requirements for employers and give the state Department of Labor and Industry subpoena powers to obtain records from unwilling employers accused of wage theft.

"I represent an area that has people who live on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, and when they don't get paid, when they get stolen from, their lives spiral out of control, whether it's they can't pay their rent or they can't put food on the table for their kids," said Mahoney, a St. Paul Democrat and retired pipe fitter.

Several workers told reporters how they've been shorted on wages. Robin Pikala, a home health care worker and member of the Service Employees International Union, said she worked for a company that in 2004 failed to pay nearly 600 workers for 45 days, then filed for bankruptcy. None ever got paid, she said, and their lost wages exceeded $1.4 million.

"In the restaurant world, wage theft isn't the exception, it's the norm," said Kevin Osborn, a line cook from Minneapolis and member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which advocates for better working conditions within the restaurant industry. Kitchen workers are regularly expected to set up their stations and clean up off the clock, or fudge timesheets, he explained. If they complain, he said, they risk getting their hours cut.

The bill, which got its first hearing Wednesday but has more committee stops to go, was among the first 10 bills that the new House Democratic majority introduced when unveiling its agenda at the beginning of the session. But it hasn't been introduced yet in the Senate, where the GOP's narrow majority rose to three votes with a special election victory Tuesday. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, a potent force at the state Capitol, opposes the proposal.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said unpaid workers have been waiting too long for justice, so he hopes the Senate steps up and passes the legislation instead of just talking a good game. It may be folded into a broader jobs bill, he said.

"We will see if Republicans are willing to stand up to the chamber and do what's right this year," Winkler said.

Lauryn Schothorst, labor management policy director for the business group, testified at the hearing that the chamber does not condone wage theft. But she said the bill would count any failure to pay wages as wage theft regardless of intent, and create onerous record-keeping requirements.

"Our members are concerned that under the bill, even a mistake is criminal," she said in her prepared remarks.