Voices From The Corporate Enforcement Gap

National Research Conducted by Public Rights Project Reveals Many Americans are Victims of Corporate Wage Theft, Predatory Lending and other Abuses; Want Prosecutors to Prioritize Enforcement

Fifty-four percent of survey respondents report being victims of abusive business practices; shows need for prosecutors to prioritize corporate abuse cases

OAKLAND, Calif. – Today Public Rights Project released national research that shows many Americans report they’ve been cheated on their wages, victimized by predatory landlords, preyed upon by lenders or suffered health effects from corporate pollution.

Public Rights Project (PRP) commissioned the research to obtain more data on how people are harmed by illegal business practices and to dig deeper into why people are reluctant to report abuses. PRP is a national organization that helps state and local law offices - including city attorneys, district attorneys, and state attorneys general - reimagine their mission and shift resources to address the biggest economic, environmental and civil rights barriers to safe, healthy, thriving communities. The research is the first-of-its-kind national survey and the results show an opportunity for prosecutors to place a higher priority on cases that will hold corporations accountable for violations that undermine communities’ health, safety, and economic security.

In the survey of 2,000 U.S. adults in March 2019 conducted by David Binder Research, 54 percent of respondents said they’d experienced corporate abuse in the last 10 years, including wage theft, predatory lending, predatory debt collection, unsafe rental housing conditions, or health problems due to pollution created by a business.

The research shows that despite many laws on the books to protect them, many Americans still are being taken advantage of by businesses flouting the law to steal wages, fail to provide safe housing or prey upon them with abusive lending practices.

"This study shows how prevalent corporate abuse remains despite strong laws on the books,” said Jill Habig, founder and president of PRP. “The research provides a sobering snapshot of corporate abuse in people’s everyday lives and the need for enforcement to hold corporations accountable.  Local and state prosecutors have the authority to protect people from these abuses but often have not prioritized these types of cases, lack the capacity for effective enforcement, or have not invested in building the necessary trust with the community to uncover and prosecute the abuse.  Our local and state leaders must crack down on business abuse because it threatens the health, economic security, and safety of communities across the country.  This work is even more urgent now, with the Federal government under Trump letting corporate violators go unpunished.”  

PRP’s research also underscores the opportunity for prosecutors and other government leaders who address corporate abuse. The survey found widespread support for prosecutors to prioritize holding corporations accountable for these violations and not allow corporations to play by a different set of rules. Eighty percent of respondents wanted prosecutors to take on corporate abuse, compared to just thirty percent who wanted prosecutors to prioritize prosecuting individuals who commit nonviolent offenses.

Added PRP’s Policy Director Jenny Montoya Tansey, “Even with a recent push for better laws and policy, especially around wages and housing, if they aren’t enforced then people still get harmed. Enforcement is the last mile of good policy.  We also believe focusing on crimes so many people suffer from will build trust in communities where typically they don’t feel protected,” she said.

David Binder Research conducted the survey from March 18-24 with half of the interviews by cell phones and landlines and half via an online survey panel available in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full sample is ±2.2%, and it is ±2.9% for those who reported being victims.

The research team polled people who were broadly representative of the United States population with respect to race, ethnicity, income, age and gender and asked participants if they had been victims of wage theft, predatory lending, predatory debt collection, if their landlord had refused to repair unsafe housing conditions or if they had experienced health problems due to pollution created by a business.  Corporate abuse is defined as illegal business activity that harms workers, consumers and tenants and may violate either civil or criminal law.

The research says: 

  • Eight of 10 respondents said they’d experienced more than one form of abuse and people of color, young people, women, low-income people, and victims of other crimes were more likely to report they had experienced corporate abuse and were also more likely to say they had experienced multiple categories of corporate abuse.

  • Three quarters said they experienced stress and anger as a result of their experience, with half reporting trouble sleeping or financial difficulties. One third experienced medical issues, a lost job or lost work hours or had relationship problems.

  • Most people who experienced corporate abuse don’t end up receiving services and support that help them recover and only a quarter reported the abuse to authorities despite eight in 10 believing prosecutors should investigate when workers are cheated, companies commit fraud or pollute air and water.

 One respondent, Austin Clark, a 25-year old Black man from Contra Costa County, Calif., said his asthma worsened when he moved into a poorly maintained apartment complex. “I moved to Concord but unfortunately the apartment had a roach problem.” It sent him to the hospital with asthma symptoms and the doctor said his breathing might be affected by allergens from the roaches. When he talked with management, his call was one of thousands to a large corporate management company. “Finally, they called an exterminator out to my place, but it took months. And unfortunately, this was just a temporary fix. It was an old building and the company did not do routine pest control. They only sprayed in individual units when someone said something. Within a few weeks, I started seeing roaches again.” 

Said PRP’s Montoya Tansey: “Simply building additional enforcement capacity is not the answer. Often, the law becomes another tool for disenfranchising low-income people and communities of color and breaks their trust in policies and institutions. Traditional, complaint-based enforcement can mean that only the squeakiest wheels, not the communities most vulnerable to harm, get their issues addressed. We have work to do in building trust among these communities so that they will come forward, report these rights violations and trust that the justice system will help them, instead of letting them down.”


Media Contacts:

Debbie Mesloh, debmesloh@gmail.com, 415-867-2243 

Rachel Tobin, rachel_tobin@outlook.com, 404-276-5930