by Kim Krisberg
In the fall of 2011, a new Texas statute took effect against employers who engage in wage theft, or failing to pay workers as much as they’re owed. The statewide statute put in place real consequences, such as jail time and hefty fines, for employers found guilty of stealing wages from workers. It was a big step forward in a state where wage theft has become as common as cowboy boots and pick-up trucks.
In El Paso, which sits on the western-most tip of Texas on the border with Juarez, Mexico, and is among the most populous cities in the nation, wage theft has become so rampant that workers rights advocates have dubbed it an “epidemic.” So it was welcome news when shortly after the statewide wage theft statute went into effect, El Paso’s county attorneys and sheriff’s and police departments announced they’d begin investigating and prosecuting cases of wage theft. But turning the law and promises of enforcement into an on-the-ground reality has gained little traction in El Paso. So far for the city’s most vulnerable workers, the law is little more than words on paper.
“A large percentage of our workers are still leaving at the end of the day frustrated because they didn’t get compensated fairly for the work they’ve done,” said Tom Power, economic justice advocate with the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project. “This isn’t only happening to low-wage workers; it’s happening everywhere. It’s become part of the culture here in El Paso and it’s getting out of control.”
Power is also an organizer with El Paso’s Labor Justice Committee, a branch of the civil rights project that began in 2009 with just a handful of members and today boasts more than 200. The committee has become the face of worker justice in El Paso, investigating wage theft complaints, taking direct action to recoup stolen wages and training workers to become advocates on behalf of their communities. A 2011 report on wage theft in El Paso that surveyed more than 250 low-wage workers found that 20 percent were regularly paid below minimum wage and two-thirds didn’t receive overtime pay. Among the report’s many examples of worker abuses, a domestic service worker who’d brought her case to the civil rights project was paid a mere $1.60 an hour for an entire year.
“I’ve been completely perplexed about the sheer amount of abuse that’s occurring in El Paso,” Power told me. “It seems to be happening in most restaurants, in most construction sites…it’s just the picture of low-wage work in El Paso.”
Workers rise up
This past spring, workers came to the Labor Justice Committee complaining of wage theft at a prominent sushi restaurant on El Paso’s east side known as Susaki Lounge. They brought with them bounced checks representing several weeks of unpaid wages. The committee took on the case and launched an investigation, finding that the employer had an extensive history of not paying workers. The investigation eventually led to a silent protest outside the restaurant, with 10 workers entering the restaurant in an attempt to speak with the restaurant’s owner. They were kicked out, but the action eventually led to success: Two workers were fully repaid back wages.
The action against the sushi restaurant is a typical example of how the Labor Justice Committee, which is run by the workers themselves, is raising awareness around wage theft and holding employers accountable. The process goes like this: A worker comes to the committee with a wage theft complaint. The committee then fills the worker in on his or her rights and how the committee can help. The worker is given about a week to think it over; if he or she returns committed to the recovery process, the committee votes on whether to take on the case. If members vote in favor, the first step is sending a letter signed by all 200 members of the committee to the employer demanding the back wages outright.
Most of the time, Power said, employers won’t respond to the letter. So the next step is to call the employer; if that doesn’t work, it’s time to negotiate with the employer face-to-face. The worker in question, along with a trained promotor (someone who’s come to the committee with a complaint themselves and is now a trained worker advocate), brings the employer a written settlement agreement. The tactic sometimes works, but more often it doesn’t. (Power said employers come up with all kinds of excuses for not paying, with many threatening to report a worker’s immigration status.)
When these attempts don’t work, the committee turns to other means. Worker delegations go to an employer’s home or workplace and organize very visible, though silent, vigils in protest of the employer’s actions. Usually, a handful of workers will try to confront the employer during a vigil and let him or her know that protestors are well within their rights. The media is notified and invited to observe. This, not surprisingly, is very effective, Power said. Most cases that lead to vigils result in successfully recouping a worker’s wages.
“Usually, we’re pestering the person enough so that something happens…either getting the money back or the employer leaving town,” Power said.
Right now, the committee is working on eight open cases. In 2011, the committee met with almost 75 workers with complaints of wage theft, though many were referred to government agencies or for civil litigation because the amount of lost wages was in the thousands of dollars. A worker’s commitment to the process is a key factor in whether the Labor Justice Committee will take on a case — “the process won’t work if the worker does not invest themselves fully in the case,” Power noted.
“What’s hurting the economy in El Paso isn’t undocumented workers; it’s employers taking advantage of them and fattening their own wallets,” Power said. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Beyond wage theft, El Paso’s Labor Justice Committee is expanding its reach on workplace safety as well. The committee regularly hears about worksite safety violations and has begun giving more and more OSHA safety trainings to workers. Right now, Power said the safety trainings are focused on educating construction workers, but the committee eventually hopes to train employers as well — “to get at the problem at its roots,” Power said.
Workplace safety education seems to be uncharted ground for workers in El Paso, he said. There’s an incredible dearth in how much workers know about their labor rights, especially when it comes to safety conditions, he said, adding that workers are often paying out of their own pockets for expensive safety equipment that’s, in fact, an employer’s responsibility to provide. To date, the committee has trained 240 workers on their OSHA safety rights.
Looking toward the future, Power said the committee hopes to build a workers’ center similar to ones already operating in Austin and Houston. Another hope is to one day create a type of hiring hall where the committee would bring in employers who’ve committed to certain workplace standards and wages — “it could revolutionize the day labor industry,” he said.
“The abuses we see are happening to all kinds of workers in El Paso and it’s only helping to delegitimize the city as a fair workplace,” Power said.
To learn more about El Paso’s Labor Justice Committee, visit http://laborjusticecommittee.com.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for the last decade.