Worker Justice

WJW Logo

WKOW: Wisconsin DOJ accuses Dane County business owner of $8,000 in wage theft

By JT Cestkowski Apr 10, 2024 Updated Apr 10, 2024

MADISON (WKOW) – The state has sued a local business in Dane County court, alleging that the company’s owner owes a set of former employees thousands of dollars in back wages. 

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Dane County court against Jeremy Kruk and his former apparel business by the Wisconsin Department of Justice on behalf of the Department of Workforce Development.

The state alleges employees filed complaints against Kruk for failing to pay wages in April, 2022. The total wages owed to nine former employees are $8,230.68. DOJ is asking the court to order Kruk to pay the owed wages and an identical amount in penalties.

The state has alleged a series of other charges related to Kruk’s treatment of the workers, who he fired in the fall of 2022. 

27 News reached out to Kruk for a response, but have not yet heard back.

Kruk operated Crushin’ It Apparel on Madison’s east side. The workers attempted to form a union in the fall of 2022. In the midst of that effort, Kruk fired the employees and announced intentions to scale back the business.

He decamped to the town of Bristol and renamed the business Thunder Bay.

The workers ultimately voted to unionize with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT). They have spent the intervening months pressing Kruk to give them their jobs back.

The lawsuit took the workers and their union by surprise. The group had not known the state intended to file a lawsuit against Kruk until a 27 News reporter posted a screenshot of the DOJ’s press release announcing the move on social media.

“We haven’t seen any of these wage theft cases that have come before the attorney general be taken up until now,” Adam Gifford, a business representative with IUPAT District 7, said. Gifford has attempted to bargain with Kruk on behalf of the workers. “We’re really excited.”

The employees initially got organized in 2022 with help from Worker Justice Wisconsin, a worker rights organization.

“Worker Justice Wisconsin helps recover anywhere from $80,000 to $140,000, in unpaid wages every single year,” Rebecca Meier-Rao, the organization’s executive director said. “And we are only skimming the surface.”

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor recovered more than $247 million in stolen wages and associated penalties.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute estimated that the real amount of wage theft in the country could be as high as $50 billion per year.

The DOJ does not bring many wage theft cases. It instead leaves much of the labor law enforcement to the Department of Workforce Development. 

“In certain cases where there’s either a significant amount of money at stake, where there are a number of people who are impacted or there is egregious flouting of the law, that’s where the Department of Justice gets involved,” Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul told 27 News. “And we work to ensure that when that happens, that companies are held accountable and that workers are protected.”

When asked why DOJ picked this particular case to step in, Kaul said that a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made this case stand out.

Last year the board ordered Kruk to rehire the workers with back pay. According to the union, that has not happened.

“And so we have stepped in, we’re seeking to ensure that these employees are protected and also to deter this kind of conduct in the future,” Kaul said.

27 News pressed the attorney general on if he would plan to bring more of these cases in the future to address the broader issue of wage theft in the state. Kaul said that his department is somewhat limited by both other agencies and state law.

“We work with partners, including DWD,” Kaul said. “And so what we are able to bring enforcement actions on depends to some extent on what information they gather, and where they can bring enforcement efforts.”

The attorney general also called on the Legislature to pass more laws addressing wage theft.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for the legislature to take action on behalf of Wisconsinites by, for example, providing tougher penalties for the misclassification of workers or for fraudulent submissions,” Kaul said. “I hope that we will see the Legislature take action on this as well.”

Worker Justice Wisconsin told 27 News that many workers do not demand the pay they are owed because they fear retaliation.