Analysts at a liberal research institution in Washington say U.S. employers are stealing $15 billion a year from workers by failing to pay legally required minimum wages.

The Economic Policy Institute says the wage theft hits nearly one-fifth of low wage workers in the 10 largest U.S. states. The study’s authors say affected workers lose an average of $64 a week, or $3,300 a year out of their modest salaries.

Young people, women, minorities and immigrants are often stuck in low-level jobs and thus are most likely to be affected by wage theft. EPI says the shortfall obviously hurts workers, but also slows demand for goods and services, which can crimp economic growth.

On Thursday, government officials will look at the job market from a different angle, when the weekly jobless claims are published.  Economists track the number of Americans who sign up for unemployment assistance to gauge the health of the market.

A survey of economists shows most experts expect the number of such layoffs to rise slightly but still remain at a relatively low level consistent with a strong job market. A separate study produces the U.S. unemployment rate, which was just 4.4 percent in April, less than half the rate during the worst of the recession. Some analysts say with fewer unemployed workers seeking jobs, employers may have to boost wages to attract and keep staff members.  

Higher wages could contribute to inflation, and so could rising prices of imports, including oil. Friday, officials will report the latest data on price changes at the retail level with the Consumer Price Index. Experts predict the study will show inflation rose about 2 percent over the past year, a moderate level.  

U.S. central bank officials are supposed to guide the economy in ways that keep prices stable and unemployment low. They try to cool inflation by raising interest rates, but do so cautiously to avoid stalling the economy and hurting job growth. That is why experts quoted in the financial press say the Federal Reserve will raise rates again, slightly, at their June meeting.

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