“Residents in Texas: Wage Theft Hurts Working Families”

By on Jun 18, 2014 in Uncategorized |



Residents in Texas: Wage Theft Hurts Working Families

  • People who provide labor and services in the U.S. need to be paid for doing so. In an opinion essay, a Texas group says more enforcement is needed to ensure just that.

When President Obama begins the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, attendees should ask if the leader of our country will actually try to “better support working” people by combating wage theft, which is when earnings are owed but employers withhold or deny them.

It is one of the most common labor abuses plaguing workers, especially in South Texas. Working families want less rhetoric and more action.

Fuerza del Valle Workers Center has been vigorously combating wage theft in South Texas and raising awareness on the issue.

In May, Fuerza del Valle organized two demonstrations to denounce wage theft in the construction of public schools. About 40 workers are owed money for the hours they worked.

Augustin Reyna is one of the workers who was cheated out of wages, two and a half weeks worth of pay in his case. “This is the first time something like this happens with a boss,” Reyna said at the demonstration.

Unfortunately, cases like Reyna’s are becoming quite common. Wage theft is a quickly growing epidemic throughout the United States. In the Rio Grande Valley, not receiving pay, being paid less than minimum wage, shorting hours, not being paid overtime, stealing tips and making employees work off the clock is an increasingly frequent yet under-reported crime.

“They’d tell us, ‘Come (pick up your check) on Friday’ and then it was Monday and then Tuesday. Finally they told us that they didn’t have money because another company owed them money,” Maximino, another cement worker facing wage theft, said referring to an employer. “We realized then…that we wouldn’t be paid.”

Maximino stated that some of his colleagues had to sell their vehicles and other items to pay rent while they waited for a check that has yet to be issued, an unprecedented economic hardship affecting their families.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, which compared figures from the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Justice, the amount of money stolen from workers in 2012 was more than double the amount of money stolen in street, bank, gas station and convenience store robberies combined.

Fuerza del Valle has documented over 400 incidents of labor abuse with over 80 percent involving some form of wage theft in the South Texas area alone.

In Texas, we have found that workers who try to report stolen wages to authorities are met with apathy and a lack of enforcement by many local police departments. While the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) is officially in charge of investigating complaints made against employers at the state level, only 24 investigators have been reported of working in the state and their offices are more than 300 miles away from the Valley in Austin.

And the TWC, based on our experience, only steps in if complaints are made by employees, which some construction companies make increasingly difficult when they dubiously list workers as independent contractors on tax documents in an effort to save money.

This fear of their employers allows for workplace violations in a variety of settings but especially in the domestic sphere to occur. As much as 67 percent of live-in domestic workers are underpaid, the median being $6.15 an hour.Fear of deportation is enough to keep workers quiet, since it is common for employers to threaten employees with a call to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a tactic that is especially common in domestic work.  A survey completed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance reported as many as 85 percent of domestic workers who have encountered problems in their workplace did not complain due to fear of their immigration status being used against them.

Domestic workers are also paid lower than those industries usually occupied by men. Many domestic workers work long hours without breaks and less than 2 percent receive some sort of pension or retirement benefits from their employers. Workers usually keep continuing until they physically can’t. But workplace injuries are common and include wrist, shoulder, elbow or hip pain from repetitive work.

Workers need better protection when violations occur and the U.S. Department of Labor, the federal agency in charge of wage claims, needs to vigorously and consistently enforce these policies.

A fear of deportation should not haunt workers who are only trying to provide for their families, and the effort used to “militarize” the border should be focused on ensuring that workers are not cheated out of their wages or dignity.

“The companies (who commit wage theft) should lose work and stop getting contracts because it’s abuse,” Maximino said. “They’re abusing people who need to work and it’s not fair that they’re toying with workers.”

Erika Galindo is a media adviser for Fuerza del Valle Workers Center, a South Texas organization that helps empower workers and seeks to end wage theft. Hector Guzman Lopez of the Texas Civil Rights Project contributed to this opinion essay. Join the conversation as the White House hosts the Summit on Working Families on Monday, June 23.

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