Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy stands with workers from the Starbucks store at Poplar Avenue and Highland Street during a protest in March. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50

District Attorney Steve Mulroy, Shelby County’s top law enforcement official, is reviving the office’s Economic Crimes Unit.

The unit’s new focus will be wage theft, job misclassification and other forms of worker exploitation, the DA’s office announced Nov. 4. The unit was previously downsized under former Republican DA Amy Weirich and mostly focused on fraud, Mulroy said.

Now with two staff attorneys, the unit is a part of the Democratic DA’s plan to rebuild trust between the community and law enforcement. This makes it one of Mulroy’s earliest action items since he was sworn into office Sept. 1 following his history-making election in August. Mulroy will be in office for eight years – the nation’s longest term for an elected prosecutor

The DA maintained that violent crime is the office’s priority, but with “a staff of 230, it is possible to do other things,” Mulroy said.

The Memphis economy is based heavily on low-wage jobs. The city is ranked fifth in overall poverty, with 27% of Black residents living in poverty, compared to 10% of white residents, according to the 2022 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet. Almost half of the area’s workforce is in industries such as transportation/material moving, office/administrative support, sales and food preparation/food service, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There’s a very good reason to think that wage theft is rampant in our economy.”

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy

Mulroy sat down with MLK50 to discuss his vision for the new unit and how it can serve Shelby County’s most vulnerable workers.

Why do you see economic crimes, specifically worker exploitation, as a priority?

It’s kind of this silent epidemic. There’s a very good reason to think that wage theft is rampant in our economy. It’s maybe more prevalent in some industries than others, but it is something that systemically hits the pocketbooks of the people who are most vulnerable and least able to withstand it — working-class people who are barely making it as it is. 

And not just wage theft, but job misclassification. You see that in the construction industry and other areas as well. People that really are employees are being misclassified as independent contractors so that the employers don’t have to pay benefits. They also don’t have to pay into things like Social Security and workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and things like that. In both types of situations, both wage theft and job classification, the harm is to the entire community. 

So, not only are the workers themselves being exploited and defrauded; sometimes, as a result, they may have to get government assistance, and it hurts the economy. It also hurts the government because they are being deprived of contributions into workers’ comp and unemployment insurance and things like that. So it’s government fraud as well. 

It also hurts the legitimate employers who are at a competitive disadvantage because they’re playing by the rules. That leads to a vicious cycle, a downward spiral of worker mistreatment where, in order to stay afloat, you can’t raise wages. You can’t raise benefits, and it’s ultimately bad for our economy. It’s also bad for the workers. 

Why is your unit focusing on worker exploitation rather than “white-collar crime”?

It’s not like we won’t do white-collar crime. White-collar crime had been, at least theoretically, part of the portfolio of the existing Economic Crimes Unit in the past. If we get a meritorious white-collar crime case, then we’ll prosecute it. 

Two things: One is that worker exploitation is a significant problem that occurs with some frequency under the radar that hasn’t been paid attention to, and that’s why I thought it was important to emphasize it. Second, the victim in worker exploitation is the little guy, the person who is just barely making it and is least able to sustain the shock of wage theft and job misclassification and fraud in general. 

…We have a heightened duty to protect the most vulnerable, and because these are problems that haven’t been paid attention to in the past. 

Workers at a construction project in Midtown. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Was there a moment that inspired you to restart the unit? 

Well, I originally had been alerted to the problem of wage theft when I was on the county commission. The Workers Interfaith Network brought it to my attention, and I attempted to pass a wage theft ordinance on the county side to try to provide county remedies for this kind of thing. And I failed by one vote to get it passed. 

But during the campaign, I attended the different meetings of the Kellogg’s workers during the strike. In fact, back in 2014, [County Mayor] Lee Harris and I camped out with the Kellogg’s workers during the lockout. There was a lockout before there was a strike. And then, during the campaign, I attended the marches and rallies for the Starbucks workers. 

So the issue of worker exploitation was very much on my mind during the campaign, thanks to the Starbucks workers and the Kellogg’s workers. In fact, when we did our endorsement press conference, the Memphis 7 endorsed me. I specifically pledged that that was something that I was going to be looking into.

What kinds of complaints could the average worker bring to this unit? 

During the campaign, I had conversations with different representatives of organized labor, who told me that if I got elected and was serious about pursuing this, that they could bring documented cases of wage theft and worker misclassification to me. So I’m hoping that once we get the Economic Crimes Unit up and running and ready to do this, that I can get some of that information from organized labor to see if there are indeed meritorious cases to pursue. 

But, to answer your question, any individual worker — if they think that they worked 50 hours in a week and are only getting paid for 35, or the employer clocks you out early but still requires you to do some stuff even though you’re technically clocked out, or doesn’t pay you time and a half when, doesn’t pay you overtime when you deserve overtime, or is telling you you’re an independent contractor, but given the amount of work you do on site and the length of time you’re working and the fact that the employer exercises control over where you go and what you do, makes you think that you’re being screwed over in that regard. 

We probably don’t have the capacity to follow up with every employee complaint because there are a lot of employee/employer complaints, and some of them involve actual violations of the law. And some of them don’t, and some of them are more egregious than others. I think we would be interested in information that led to a systemic pattern of abuse, where many workers over a significant period of time all had similar stories to tell about wage theft or job classification.

Kellogg’s workers march along Airways Boulevard on the first day of their 2021 strike in October. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

How large do you envision the unit will be?

By the time I got elected, the unit [which once had as many as five attorneys] was down to one because one person had already announced that they were leaving for another job anyway. I’ve hired one new attorney so far that I’ve assigned to that unit. My hope is to hire several more in the coming months … I am, little by little, going to plug those holes and get the Economic Crimes Unit back up to a better size by year’s end.

You’re focused on rebuilding trust right now. How do you plan to engage with the communities that can benefit from this unit the most?

We do have a public forum planned sometime in the near future, hopefully by the end of the year. I’d like to do them maybe quarterly. I’m always available to come speak to different groups. 

What will your outreach and engagement plan be for workers such as domestic workers, immigrant workers and others who are not traditionally protected by labor laws? 

I’m not going to say that I have a detailed five-point plan in effect. I will tell you this with respect to immigrants … We need to do a better job of considering the collateral immigration consequences of our charging institutions. It is my intention to hire one or two lawyers who have immigration law experience so they can advise other [assistant district attorneys] about the potential pitfalls.

We’re not here to separate people from their families. My job is not to enforce federal immigration law, and I want to actually do a good job of reaching out to the immigrant and Latino communities and send that message that we are not the immigration authorities. We don’t plan to cooperate with the immigration authorities beyond the extent to which we are required by law to do so.

Will you partner with federal agencies when investigating bigger companies in Shelby County for patterns and practices of wage theft, union busting and other allegations?

To the extent that we uncover evidence that might be relevant to federal authorities regarding federal law violations on a bigger scale — the kinds of cases that the Department of Labor might be interested in — I think clearly we would contact them and let them know and see if they’re interested. At a certain point, it makes sense to involve the Feds because they’ve got the resources to take on the really big entities that might be difficult to take on.

What do you hope to have accomplished in this unit by the end of this year, after the next couple of years, and — thinking big — by the end of your eight-year term?

Well, by the end of the year, I hope to have it staffed up to a reasonable amount. By the end of my first year in office — let’s say September 2023 — I hope to have, at least started, if not concluded, a couple of good worker exploitation cases. By the end of my term, I’d hoped to have made that kind of case normal, unremarkable, that we get used to the idea that that is the kind of thing that a district attorney can do. For that matter, I hope that the number of DAs across the country who are doing this kind of work will have increased significantly.

Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at brittany.brown@mlk50.com


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