Any of us in the workforce today know that as companies and corporations strive to meet their bottom line and as employees move freely from one company to another, defining the social contract between employee and employer has intensified and become more complex. As each side protects its own interests, trust and loyalty between employees and employers has become increasingly challenging. While not the only issue, this often plays out in the pay structure and practices. Today, it is not uncommon for companies to delay payment for work until a job is completely done.
Cash flow, inability to secure loans to advance the funding needed to meet payroll, and corporate needs are all reasons it may not be possible to disburse wages until the completion of the job. Nevertheless, there are also times when simple control and greed drive these decisions. Sometimes, employers want to make sure that they can squeeze as much interest out of short-term investments and delaying wage payment can help do so. And, other times, it is a measure of control exercised over those working. And so, in many places laws have been enacted to support and protect workers from unfair labor practices and withholding of wages.
Long before labor law and corporate ethics emerged in the secular society, the Torah established a model to protect employees from unfair wage practices. The Torah introduces employment principles regarding work agreement, wages, fair treatment, and the overall relationship between the employer and the employee. One such operative principle, found in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tetze, instructs “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24: 14-15)
Not only must a worker be paid, but also it should be on the same day as the work is complete. At that time, workers were indeed hired on a daily basis and were paid for the individual day’s work, as it constituted the completion of the work. The Torah assumes that workers live hand-to-mouth and are therefore reliant on the wages to cover immediate needs, even food; without wages the worker is presumed unable even to eat. And, so the Talmud sees withholding a workers wages as akin to taking his life. Furthermore, according to Rambam, an employer who purposely withholds wages is classified as an oshek (extortionist) and may be liable for up to five biblical commands. (Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Sekhirut 11:2)
For the one needing to feed his or her family, clothe his or her children, and/or pay his or her bills, it is difficult to accept any rationalization for not receiving a paycheck. As the Torah suggests, hungry, needy, and desperate, such a person is sure to cry out to God if his wages are missing. Whatever the work period might be in today’s world, whether a week, month, or other agreed upon terms, so too does a worker expect and need to be paid.
This week, may we all be blessed to remember the commandment of not withholding of worker’s wages. May the employers amongst us commit ourselves to paying workers on time; may employees amongst us continue to strengthen the resolve to ask for what we have earned, and may we all join together to advocate for the justice and righteousness due to all workers everywhere.