Each sign is a person owed wages for work. (Lydia DePillis)

When you add a tip to a receipt, are you sure that the server is actually getting that cut? If you’re working a government construction job, are you sure you’re getting the prevailing wage for the area? The economy hasn’t just depressed rates and payrolls—it’s also just made some employers more likely to short their employees on the wages they’re owed.

The phenomenon of “wage theft,” as labor advocates call it, affects a wide range of workers, from landscapers to line cooks to janitors. And it can take many forms, including something as straightforward as withholding tips or as difficult to figure out as misclassifying a laborer on a construction project into a lower-paying job category. Transient workers are particularly vulnerable: The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs found in a 2008 report that 51 percent of day laborers surveyed in the D.C. area were paid less than what they had been promised, and 22 percent had experienced having a paycheck bounce.

The problem has gotten worse lately. According to Laura Brown, director of legal services at the D.C. Employment Justice Center, complaints of non-payment or underpayment of wages at the organization’s weekly workers rights clinic jumped from a quarter of all complaints to one third of complaints in the third quarter of 2010. D.C. EJC serves about 1300 people each year, helping them navigate paperwork at the city’s Wage and Hour office, which can help workers recover unjustly denied wages. But the office only has a small handful of employees—down from a much more robust staff decades ago—and can’t do much to force an employer doesn’t cooperate. If a worker doesn’t have a stack of documentation, there’s little the D.C. EJC can do to help.

“To say they’re understaffed is an understatement,” Brown says, noting that there’s only one Spanish-speaking investigator. “That’s ridiculous.”

To combat the problem, labor organizers—mostly representing non-unionized workers, since the D.C. area has such low union density—want the cops to get involved. At a press conference last week in front of the Metropolitan Police Department, D.C. Jobs with Justice called upon the MPD to proactively investigate complaints of wage theft as if it were theft of any other good, and impose stiff penalties on those found to have shortchanged workers. In addition, they want the Department of Employment Services should do spot checks on pay stubs to make sure laws are being followed.

The press conference was coordinated with several dozen around the nation in a bid to raise the profile of wage theft, and comes soon after the introduction of federal legislation that would expand enforcement and create a grant program within the Department of Labor to help communities police the problem.