This week, Houston became only the second major city in the U.S. South to pass a law to prevent and punish wage theft. It’s a major victory for all workers, but it’s especially significant for the city’s low-wage workers, who lose an estimated $753.2 million every year because of wage theft.
Passed unanimously by the Houston City Council on Wednesday, the new wage theft ordinance provides workers with a formal process to lodge wage theft complaints and puts in place real penalties for employers convicted of stealing workers’ wages. Businesses convicted of wage theft — either civilly or criminally — will be listed in a publicly accessible city database and will become ineligible for city contracts or subcontracts. In addition, any employer with a criminal conviction of wage theft won’t be able to receive occupational permits and licenses. The ordinance, which automatically went into effect, is the first such measure in Texas. Miami-Dade County was the first major southern metropolis to pass a wage theft ordinance.
“At the deepest level, this affirms that any Houston resident does have the right to participate in the political process and help determine how their city runs,” said Laura Perez-Boston, executive director of Houston’s Fe y Justicia Worker Center (Faith and Justice Worker Center), which spearheads the local Down With Wage Theft campaign and whose worker members rallied and testified in support of the ordinance. “What this victory means is that if you’re committed to a vision for change and to justice, just don’t give up. We can win.”
Two years in the making, the ordinance is an encouraging example of community-driven change. Led by Fe y Justicia and its partners, workers spoke out at community forums, organized rallies and marches, and met with local officials — “it took a lot of work in the streets to earn our seat at the table,” Perez-Boston told me. In fact, the employer penalties and language included in the new ordinance came directly from conversations with workers who had experienced wage theft, she said.
With such an ordinance in place, Perez-Boston said she hopes more workers will feel safe coming forward to report wage theft. The ordinance will also boost the worker center’s efforts to recover stolen wages. Now, when center staff send letters to employers regarding a wage theft complaint, they can use the new ordinance to get their attention. The Down With Wage Theft coalition will be working closely with the city to make sure the ordinance is effectively implemented and to monitor the results, said Jessica Alvarenga, communications coordinator for the campaign. In addition, Fe y Justicia will continue to assist low-wage workers in recovering stolen wages on their own.
“Given that this was a two-year campaign, first we want to celebrate,” Alvarenga told me. “We want to make sure this law goes into effect correctly before we start pushing for more. This is just the first step of many steps for workers.”
As Perez-Boston said: “We want to make sure it’s a living, breathing protection for justice.”
For 25-year-old Houston resident Adalinda Guajardo, the wage theft ordinance is a particularly personal victory. Three years ago, her father, a truck driver, was hired to transport milk from Houston to destinations around Texas. Unfortunately, the employer never paid him the more than $2,300 he was owed. Guajardo’s father was the sole income earner for the family and the missing wages had a devastating result — they weren’t able to pay for rent, utilities, her college tuition or her mother’s diabetes medication.
“At first, we didn’t know what to do, we were in shock,” she told me. “We felt humiliated.”
Eventually, Guajardo and her family went to the Fe y Justicia Worker Center for help in recovering the wages. Unfortunately, they’ve only been able to recover about $40 so far, but in the process they became strong supporters of the Down With Wage Theft campaign. In fact, Guajardo was among residents who testified before the City Council.
“I finally feel like there’ll be some justice,” she said. “If you’re a victim of wage theft, speak up, don’t be afraid. Wage theft is a crime and it deserves to be punished.”
According to a 2012 report from Fe y Justicia (which was then known as the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center), more than 100 wage and hour violations happen in Houston every week. For example, just this week a Houston-based commercial maintenance company agreed to pay more than $273,000 in back wages to 266 janitors after a federal investigation. Nationwide, 68 percent of low-wage workers surveyed by the National Employment Law Project reported experiencing wage violations in the previous week.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.