Wage Theft

Wage Theft

It isn’t unusual today to hear politicians and business leaders arguing poverty has roots in individual character flaws and personal failings. Are the poor to blame for being poor?

Those who are actually on the ground, working with the poor and low-wage workers tell a different story.

Guadalupe Villanueva is a construction worker in the Houston area. In 2007 he secured a job doing foundation work at a local construction site.

“On the first day, I asked who would be paying me since I saw the contractor was working for a company that was actually doing the job, but the contractor said he would be the person paying me,” Mr. Villanueva said. He knew to ask the question in advance because wage theft is common in the construction industry.

In all, Mr. Villanueva worked on four foundations for the contractor. He showed up on time for work every day. He was never disciplined. He worked hard and did a good job.

But after finishing the first foundation, Mr. Villanueva was told he could not be paid until “the company” gave his boss the money. After the fourth foundation was completed, he still had not received any pay. At that point, Mr. Villanueva stopped working — and went to work trying to recover the wages owed to him.

“A week passed, and I kept calling [my former boss]. In the end, he only gave me $2,000, when he owed me $7,000,” Mr. Villanueva said.

The company paying for the foundation had already paid Mr. Villanueva’s employer; the unscrupulous contractor had simply kept Mr. Villanueva’s pay for himself. Finally, Mr. Villanueva went to the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice center in 2008 for help.

In 2010 Mr. Villanueva’s employer was court ordered to pay more than $6,000 in back wages. However, because of weak enforcement policies, Mr. Villanueva still has not received any of the money his former employer was ordered to pay him.

There are a variety of causes for poverty in the United States, including this: Poor people and low-wage workers are easy targets for unethical business owners, and our justice system is not equipped or willing to provide adequate protection.

Like Mr. Villanueva, more than 80 percent of the 16,000 low-wage workers who came to an Interfaith Worker Justice affiliated workers’ center for help last year were victims of wage theft.

Wage theft happens in every industry, victimizing millions of workers but is especially prevalent in the construction, landscape, restaurant and hospitality industries.

Billions of dollars are stolen from workers every year.

According to a 2010 study conducted by researchers at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), 30 percent of vulnerable workers were paid less than minimum wage. Nearly 80 percent of low-wage hourly workers who worked overtime weren’t paid the legally required overtime wages. Almost half had employers illegally deduct money from their paychecks for work-related tools, uniforms and transportation. Nearly 20 percent of workers who rely on tips for a portion of their pay had tip money illegally taken from them by their employers.

On average, low-wage workers have 12.5 percent of their weekly and annual income stolen from them by unethical employers, according to “Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles,” a 2010 report by Ruth Milkman, Ana Luz González and Victor Narro for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA.

“[Wage theft] affects you because you have more worries,” Mr. Villanueva said. “You become worried that this will happen to you again on other jobs. It also affected my family because I had to economize and use up my savings.”

People of faith familiar with the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not steal” understand that wage theft is a moral issue.

Across the United States people of faith are working together in Interfaith Worker Justice groups and affiliated workers’ centers to confront wage theft and advocate for the workers whose wages are taken from them — and they’ve seen some recent victories.

In Texas, a new anti-wage-theft law was passed in the state’s 2011 legislative session. The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center took workers to a local police station in November to test the new law and file claims of wage theft.

South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice worked in 2010 to urge local lawmakers to pass an anti-wage-theft ordinance in Miami-Dade County. The program in south Florida helped to recover more than $350,000 in unpaid wages last year.

Worker advocates in Florida are currently working to stop state lawmakers from passing a law prohibiting local governments from making such laws.

The Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center is working on an education campaign for policymakers to reintroduce a statewide anti-wage theft bill in the 2013 session.

“We’re working to be more strategic across the state and educate the policymakers on ways to help workers who are being cheated and businesses that want to do the right thing,” said Ana Aguayo of the workers’ center.

The workers’ center is collaborating with the state Department of Labor to collect stories from workers across the state to find out how much money employers are stealing from their workers, Ms. Aguayo said — stories like the one of two construction workers in the Fayetteville and Springdale, Ark., area.

Jorge* Granadeno and Fernando* Sandoval worked for a construction company for two weeks in 2011 without receiving pay. Their employer repeatedly deferred payment dates, and he told Mr. Granadeno and Mr. Sandoval he had not been paid for the job.

The two contacted the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center, and after mediation, phone calls and a warning that the two workers would file a complaint with the state Department of Labor, Mr. Granadeno and Mr. Sandoval recovered nearly $5,000 in owed wages.

Lawmakers at the federal, state and local level spend a fair bit of time these days talking about how to create jobs for American families. But the faith community must work together to insist on just jobs for workers — jobs that pay a decent wage, jobs with employers who do not steal from their workers, jobs with paid sick days.

According to a report from National Employment Law Project, 60 percent of job losses between 2008 and 2010 were mid-wage occupations — good, middle class jobs.

But the new jobs being created in the so-called “recovery” are mainly low-wage jobs — food preparation workers, retail salespeople, office clerks and cashiers.

These low-wage jobs are more likely to have poor working conditions and employers who steal wages from their workers. They rarely provide health care or paid sick days. And they often put workers in unsafe conditions.

When unethical businesses take advantage of low-wage workers the faith community has a moral responsibility to stand with the most vulnerable.

Adam DeRose is online organizer at Interfaith Worker Justice.

Posted or updated: 4/30/2012 11:00:00 PM