DFL lawmakers plan to introduce legislation that would create civil and criminal penalties for unscrupulous employers convicted of wage theft, a problem that disproportionately affects low-wage and immigrant workers, labor advocates said Wednesday.

In a news conference, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, a state labor federation, said that the bill would provide an avenue for workers to recoup back wages and send a message to employers who skimp on overtime, fail to pay employees for all hours worked or issue incomplete final paychecks.

"Wage theft is a real issue," said Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, the bill's sponsor in the House. "It's disheartening and time to fix the problem."

Labor advocates said that nationally, wage theft costs employees $30 billion annually, according to a 2014 Economic Policy Institute report. No data on Minnesota was immediately available. 

Robin Pikala, a home care worker from Minneapolis, said Wednesday that she is owed $2,000 for hours she worked and that the process to recoup back wages was lengthy and taxing for low-income workers. 

Asked about the legislation, Gov. Dayton said he hadn't heard much about the issue.

"It’s the first I’ve heard of that concern or the legislation around it. I’d want to talk to Commissioner Ken Peterson (Department of Labor and Industry) to see what his take on it is," Dayton told reporters later. "If people are not being paid wages that are owed them, then I think that’s something we should do something about.”

The bill, which is yet to be formally introduced, would triple the amount of any back wages owed to employees. Currently, employees are entitled to double the amount if an employer is found to be skimping on pay.

Among other provisions, the bill would extend the statute of limitations to six years for wage-theft complaints, create criminal penalties for repeat offenders and would provide grants to community organization to educate workers on their rights and how to recoup wages.

Star Tribune staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.

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