“N.J. Gas Station Workers Cheated Out of Pay to Get $1M in Back Wages.” That was a headline in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. It's a classic tale of big, bad business trying to stick it to the little guy. And this time, the little guy prevailed with help of crack law enforcement.
But is that really the story?
Maybe. But maybe not. What we know is that in 2011 the Department of Labor found that scores of gas station owners in the Garden State (where self-service is outlawed to protect gas station attendant jobs) failed to comply properly with the Fair Labor Standards Act, including paying over-time to some eligible workers. In some instances, bosses probably were trying to skirt laws about how much workers must be paid, and reports suggest some workers were being paid off-the-books.
There's no excuse for circumventing tax laws or ignoring minimum wage requirements. However, in many of these cases, rather than big, bad, greedy industrialists exploiting poor workers, the gas station owners themselves could just as easily be cast as the “little guys,” struggling to make sense of complicated, antiquated regulations imposed by the real lords of power in the modern economy—the government.
Sal Risalvato, director of the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store, Automotive Association explained that many gas station owners who were found out-of-compliance lack professional payroll departments and were simply trying to simplify their record-keeping hassles. They weren't short-changing their workers. Many were paying more than they were legally compelled to, but had just failed to follow the precise calculations of the law.
Risalvato prudently said he was glad that the Department of Labor will soon hold training seminars to help gas station owners understand the nuances of what's required by law. And, sure, it's nice for government to offer such assistance, but the very need for such training programs exemplifies the big-picture problem: Government rules have become so complicated that would-be entrepreneurs can't start businesses and small business owners have to dedicate their afternoons to learning the ins and outs of bureaucratic red tape, rather than actually working to provide services and create jobs.
This is not the recipe for a dynamic economy and robust job creation. Yes, Americans want some basic government oversight to ensure basic workers' rights are protected and workplaces are safe. Yet it's increasingly clear we've gone too far in allowing government to micromanage the minutiae of business-life.