Going to a job and getting paid appropriately for your time is how it is supposed to work. Doing your job and getting ripped off by not getting paid is wrong and illegal. The economic consequences of wage theft for the victims and their families are profound: the threat and reality of losing utilities, food and housing. One of the single biggest risk factors for ill health is poverty. That makes wage theft a public health problem.
But catching and punishing employer-thieves is difficult. The federal and state enforcement agencies are under resourced and the laws weak. It’s also one thing to have a law on the books. It’s another to have that law enforced. A group of Houston workers fought several years for the former and succeeded last year in getting it. They took steps this week for the latter. The workers delivered their complaint to the City of Houston’s Inspector General (IG). That’s the first step to trigger a possible enforcement action under the City’s new anti-wage theft ordinance. The law took effect in January.
Thirteen workers allege that Hyland Construction, Bradley Demolition and BSP Construction hired them for jobs, which the workers completed, but the firms failed to pay them the wages owed. The workers say they are waiting for more than $200,000 in back pay.
The new ordinance provides workers with a formal process to lodge wage theft complaints and puts in place 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. They will also be ineligible for city contracts or subcontracts, and certain permits and licenses. That’s especially meaningful in this week’s complaint because the firms were engaged in projects contracted by the City of Houston.
One of the groups that was instrumental in getting the anti-wage theft ordinance passed was the Fe y Justicia Worker Center. Laura Boston, executive director of the worker-led organization, reported that the City’s IG, Robin Curtis, and her staff met personally with the workers to receive their complaint. “She seemed grateful,” said Boston, “and thanked the workers for coming forward.” The workers themselves, Boston added, “were proud that what they fought for [the ordinance] can work. It was not just a paper victory.”