Don't Call It 'Quiet Quitting.' Many Workers Are Fighting Wage Theft

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KEY POINTS

  • Quiet quitting is a term used to describe the rejection of uncompensated overwork by employees.
  • Wage theft is a big problem, costing workers approximately $50 billion annually.
  • With a strong labor market, more power is in the hands of employees than ever before.


Search queries for the term "Quiet Quitting" hit an all-time high in August.

The term "quiet quitting" has gone mainstream in recent weeks, referring to the practice of employees completing the minimum amount of work stipulated by their employment contract. But is there more to the story than workers unwilling to go the extra mile? The opposite argument is that workplace pressure to do extra (uncompensated) work is actually wage theft. Here's what you need to know about this recent workplace debate.

"Quiet quitting" defined

References to quiet quitting only showed up in force at the end of this summer. However, the movement that it describes has been around for years. 

Across industries, some American workers are experiencing a degree of empowerment unfamiliar to previous working generations. Instead of accepting the assumed norms of a workplace, employees are increasingly challenging expectations. For some, this looks like reconsidering the 80-hour work week of what should be a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. For others, it means throwing away the company culture that discourages taking time off. Whatever it looks like in your industry, many employees are redefining the value of their time -- and making companies compete for staff.

Quiet quitting often places the onus on the employees who are "quitting" the accepted norms of their workplaces. But some detractors believe the term does not properly place responsibility on employers who engage in undesirable behavior, such as expecting unpaid overtime or building a culture around not taking time off. 

Wage theft

Many employees who engage in quiet quitting don't believe they are "quitting," but rather fulfilling the stipulations of their employment. Unpaid overtime, a culture of taking no days off, or other unfair business practices could be viewed by an employee as a violation of their employment contract at best -- and wage theft at worst.

Wage theft is broadly defined as the failure to pay compensation rightfully owed to employees, which can take a number of forms. Commonly, employers may fail to pay overtime wages at the proper rates, forcing employees to work "off the clock." In some industries this can look like utilization rates where only billable time is tracked toward a weekly 40 hours. In other cases, employees are expected to work a certain number of hours per week, while paid on salary. Other examples of wage theft include not paying annual leave benefits, misclassifying employees as independent contractors, or illegally deducting pay.

The problem of wage theft in the U.S. is a major one. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that wage theft costs American workers over $50 billion annually. The same study found that two-thirds of low-wage workers experienced at least one pay-related violation in a given week. All in all, wage theft is a common enemy of the American worker, and it's viewed by some as a direct foil to quiet quitting.

Labor's time to shine

So, who is right in the case of quiet quitting vs. wage theft? As it turns out, it depends on a number of factors. Not only do the facts differ in each employee-employer relationship, but the opinions of who you ask vary too. Employers are likely to lean into the term quiet quitting to explain less engaged workers. On the other hand, employees may consider certain workplace practices to border on wage theft and maintain that they are satisfying their employment obligations.

However, not all is fair in the labor market. Employees are enjoying a period of relative power when it comes to their personal finance picture. With an unemployment rate of only 3.7% in August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some workers aren’t afraid to be fired because of quiet quitting. Likewise, many employees who leave a job they believe is unfair are likely to find another relatively quickly. 

That said, if you plan to leave a job without another lined up, it's a good idea to prepare with a well-padded emergency fund for potential lean times -- or just peace of mind. 

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