Friday, July 24, 2009

Alejandro's Story

Alejandro had been contracted by Owen to do some construction work at a rate of $80 a day. Alejandro worked from 9am to 5pm six days a week and he was initially paid at the end of every week by Owen. After working several weeks without being paid, Alejandro received a check from Owen for $500 which he attempted to cash at a Check Cashing Store. Shortly after that, Alejandro received a letter from the Check Cashing Store stating that the check had no funds and that he now owed the store the original $500 that was paid on the check as well as an additional $40 penalty fee.

Alejandro paid the money back to The Check Cashing Store to avoid any immediate problems, thinking that he would then call Owen, explain what happened, and be repaid, but, despite numerous calls, Owen did not pick up the phone or return any of Alejandro’s messages. Alejandro, who, at this point, was now owed for six weeks of unpaid work totaling $3,420, stopped going to work, continuing to call Owen for the funds that were owed

Eventually, Owen reluctantly paid Alejandro $400 of the amount owed, but refused to pay anymore, denying that he owed Alejandro any more money. Alejandro is still owed $3,020 for work that he completed over six months ago.

The Crime Wave No One Talks About

IWJ Leads the Way Against Wage Theft

There is a growing movement in the United States to stop unscrupulous employers from stealing workers’ wages. Wage theft has reached epidemic proportions, and with the current economic crisis, unscrupulous corporations and businesses are cutting corners to reduce costs – often by forcing workers to work “off the clock,” not paying overtime, withholding final paychecks or in many cases not paying workers at all.

National awareness of this crime wave has been greatly advanced by the leadership of Interfaith Worker Justice, the work of its affiliated organizations, and the publication of IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo’s book Wage Theft in America. There is a newfound willingness by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Congress to forcefully address this issue. Newly appointed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has said that there is “a new sheriff in town,” and that the department will hire hundreds of new wage and hour investigators and attorneys.

IWJ has stepped up on a national level because its groups have organized workers and pioneered wage recovery action in cities and regions throughout the nation. Worker centers affiliated with IWJ have been in the forefront of organizing and public policy work against these abuses at the local level, and have collected millions of dollars in unpaid back wages for workers since IWJ’s worker center network was created in 2003. In recent months:

The Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center has led a campaign to fix a hole in state law that allows the State Department of Labor to pursue only those wage claims that are less than $1,000.

South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice in Miami has helped convene the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force, which is working to pass an ordinance that would empower the Miami-Dade County Equal Opportunity Board to enforce wage and hour laws.

The Workers Defense Project in Austin, Texas will release a major study in June of working conditions in Austin’s home construction industry, in which immigrant workers are reporting an increasing number of injuries and wage theft.

The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center has recovered more than $150,000 in stolen wages since June 2007 ($50,000 so far in 2009) and recently issued a report on wage theft in the wake of Hurricane Ike (see The Center convenes a series of monthly asambleas, or worker assemblies, to discuss wage theft and related issues.

The Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center has represented a group of workers who filed complaints with the DOL. As has too often been the case, the DOL has botched this investigation and has announced a settlement with the employer that it worked out without consulting the workers. Cincinnati Interfaith is fighting to stop the DOL from cutting deals with employers without worker input or agreement.

Arise Chicago Worker Center (formerly the Interfaith Worker Rights Center) has mapped by political ward the addresses of law-breaking employers against which it has organized, finding that it has been active in 43 of the 50 wards. By mapping the addresses of worker residences, Arise Chicago found that it has supported workers in 47 of the 50 wards. Worker center members in these wards will meet with their aldermen to educate them about workplace abuses and enlist their support for a city ordinance that would deter wage theft. Clergy whose congregations are located in those wards will join the workers.

In April, organizers from DC Jobs with Justice/Interfaith Worker Justice of Greater Washington and allies descended on the DC Office of the Wage and Hour Division to demand the protection of workers robbed of their wages by employers. After listening to the group’s concerns and being presented with more than 130 letters, the Assistant Director for Labor Standards at the Department of Employment Services agreed to meet several key demands, including instructing staff to use a wider range of tools in their investigations, giving workers more frequent updates on their cases, and forwarding some cases to the Attorney General’s office for prosecution.

On a national level, IWJ has spearheaded a campaign that brought the issue to Congress and the Obama Administration. Working with sympathetic members of Congress and their staff members, IWJ has helped to shine a floodlight on a crime that has, until now, remained in the shadows. IWJ’s work has resulted in:

--two hearings of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee on labor abuses and the lack of enforcement by the Bush Administration’s DOL in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
--three investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, which exposed the unwillingness or incapacity of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division to enforce wage laws
--briefings of more than 100 House and Senate staffers on the issue
--two hearings by the House Education and Labor Committee
--and a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on wage theft and related issues, focusing on reforms needed in the administration of the DOL and on the need for legislation to address wage theft.