This story was originally published at Medillreports.org in February 2016.
By Jay Bouchard
In an effort to empower and protect the rights of low-wage hourly workers, a first-of-its-kind mobile application is launching Monday in Chicago with the potential to increase global workplace transparency.
Don Chartier, a retired business executive and first-time entrepreneur, spent the past year developing HourVoice. The smartphone application allows low-wage employees to better manage their scheduling and evaluate employers on important criteria like wages, benefits, breaks, and safety.
“I’ve been worried about inequality for a long time,” said Chartier, of his inspiration to build the app.
Chartier noted that his background in economics shaped the way he viewed workplace inequality, but he was particularly stirred last March on a flight home from a technology conference when he read something in Harper’s magazine that piqued his entrepreneurial instinct.
The article, “The Spy Who Fired Me,” documents the rise of data-driven efforts that some employers use to monitor and evaluate employee performance and often make workers’ lives more difficult.
Chartier emerged from his reading wondering whether any comprehensive data system exists to support low-wage employees who risk being taken advantage of by their workplace.
It does now.
One of the app’s key features is the HourTracker, which allows workers to track and store their hours on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and calculate gross earnings in order to ensure their employer compensates them accordingly.
“The time tracker is very prominent,” said Marides Serrano, one of the first users to test the app. “One of my pet peeves with hourly working is that I would like to know how much I’m making and when I clock in and when I clock out.”
Serrano has worked for an hourly wage since she was 16. She worked at Big Lots for two years in high school and has worked for Starbucks for the past nine.
“It would have benefitted me if I had this the past few years,” Serrano said. “It provides peace of mind.”
Serrano spoke of one of her coworkers at Starbucks who tries to work 20 hours each week in order to qualify for education and healthcare benefits. She said that workers are constantly stressed about tracking their hours and could really benefit from a product like HourVoice.
The app also includes an educational component. HourVoice provides “insights” that brief users on workers’ rights and prompts them to evaluate employers based on those rights.
“Not a lot of people know their rights,” Serrano said. “Not a lot of workers go out and look for it, so I like the educational aspect.”
Sean Starr, a Chicago-based labor and employment attorney, echoed Serrano’s thoughts.
“The app will allow hourly workers better awareness of their rights,” Starr said. “It’s an additional layer of protection. It will help employees keep their employers honest.”
Chartier also hopes that the app will compile enough data to provide comprehensive employer ratings in Chicago and beyond.
“The goal is for HourVoice to be the credible provider of workplace data,” said Sean Tenner, spokesman for the product.
“I like data, I like visualizing data to identify problems,” said Chartier. Working closely with local web development agency 20spokes, he conceived the data-driven app that he hopes will prevent wage theft and other workplace injustices.
Wage theft refers to any situation in which employees are denied pay or are underpaid for their work and often relates to insufficient overtime pay and minimum wage violations.
The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported in 2014 that 4.8 percent of the state’s workforce earned a wage less than the legal minimum wage. In a 2010 study conducted by the Center for Economic Development at the University of Illinois, 67 percent of respondents in Chicago indicated they were not paid legally required overtime rates by their employers.
Moreover, according to a 2014 EPI report, two thirds of the low-wage workers in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles experienced at least one wage-related violation during the year. The EPI report estimates that wage theft could be costing hourly workers more than $50 billion a year nation-wide.
Chartier’s product will hit the city at a time when wage theft has been a major topic of concern. In February 2015, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance providing that if a business owner is found guilty of wage theft, that owner’s license to operate can be revoked.
Furthermore, Chicago’s minimum wage increased from $8.25 to $10.00 per hour in July 2015 and is forecast to hit $13.00 per hour by 2019.
“With the increase of Chicago’s minimum wage, it has become more important than ever to ensure that all workers know their rights, know how to track their hours, and know how to report on employers who may be committing wage or other workplace violations,” Chartier said.
Workers’ rights activists across the country have expressed interest in HourVoice.
Carmen Rojas, CEO of The Workers Lab, a union-backed innovation lab in California, said she thought HourVoice “is an important platform for people who work to exercise choice in employment by rating and exposing bad employers and incentivizing them to provide better paying, stable, and safe jobs.”
Chartier hopes eventually to move the app to other U.S. cities and then worldwide. Depending on how the product works in Chicago, he is considering Seattle or Washington D.C. for the next launch.
His short-term goal is to have ten percent of Chicago’s population using the app, which he said would offer an accurate picture of what working conditions are like in the city.
“The truly aspirational goal is for every hourly worker to use HourVoice every work day, and that’s globally,” Chartier said. “Beyond usage, we hope that we can make a big dent in wage theft, increase worker mobility, generate more money for the economy, and maybe influence labor policy.”