Thanks to everyone who came out to the Wage Theft Awards on Thursday, November 18th! Over fifty representatives of the Labor Justice Committee, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, the Retail Workers Rights Committee, Annunciation House, the Asociación de Trabajadores Fronterizos, La Mujer Obrera, Border Network for Human Rights, the Laborers’ International Union and other local organizations gathered outside the Department of Labor for the event, both to recognize the most egregious employers we have encountered over the last year, and to pressure public officials to step up in the fight against wage theft. “While the awards ceremony was obviously supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, we thought it was a good way to call attention to the extent of the abuse our members are seeing,” said Labor Justice Committee member Lidia Cruz. “For example, Norma Luna, who received the Most Wanted award, owes a Committee member over $4,000 in unpaid wages. After negotiating with us a few times, she moved and changed her phone number. At this point, she has successfully avoided the debt she owes without facing any consequences. However, we hope this action will make her or someone who knows her come forward!”
This awards ceremony was held to commemorate the National Day of Action against Wage Theft, a national event organized by Interfaith Worker Justice and being celebrated in over 50 cities around the country. Wage theft, or the nonpayment or underpayment of wages, is a rampant issue throughout the nation. According to a recent national survey, 68% of those surveyed had experienced a pay-related violation in just the week prior to the survey. According to Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, this adds up to billions of dollars in stolen wages every year. Furthermore, wage theft depresses the wages of all workers in a locality.
“What is worse than the wage theft itself is the lack of shame of some of these employers. We’re seeing a lot of employers literally hide from workers like Ms. Luna or hide behind the legal process like employers who enter into bankruptcy to avoid paying their workers,” said Chris Benoit, Economic Justice Attorney with Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project. “The law is strong but many employers flout the law daily,” he added.
“We know wage theft is worse here on the border,” said Martina Morales, Assistant Executive Director and Community Organizing Director with Border Network for Human Rights. “The majority of Border Network members have been victims of wage theft at some point. Our community is hard-working, and we deserve to be compensated for the work we do,” she said. Added Labor Justice Committee member Martha Murillo, “I worked at the Artisan Hotel for Douglas Da Silva. Many of his paychecks to employees bounced but my co-workers and I kept working there because he kept promising to pay us. Now that he’s filed for bankruptcy, we don’t know if we’ll ever get any of the money that he owes us. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this!”
The other awards given today were “Wage Subtractor,” awarded to Oscar Sanchez/Heavy Duty Construction, and “Soulsucker,” awarded to Family Dollar. “Wage theft affects everyone in El Paso, not just low-wage workers,” said Retail Workers Rights Committee member and former Family Dollar manager Abel Lopez. He added “If workers aren’t paid, we can’t support our local economy, and the economy as a whole suffers. We’ll keep fighting against injustices like this, but we’re calling on our public officials to also stand up against labor rights violations. We hope that local officials will consider strengthening our laws. Most importantly, we will be talking with the United States Department of Labor to talk about ways that they can start enforcing the laws we already have.”
THE WAGE THEFT AWARDS
(awards designed by Abelardo Lopez)
Norma Luna – Most Wanted
Norma Luna, former owner of Sunny Café, owes, her former employee claims, over $4,000 in unpaid wages. Like many other employers, she has admitted multiple times that she owes these wages; she’s even signed a contract to pay that confirms her debt. Unfortunately, after signing the contract to pay, she changed her address and phone number and disappeared. Her employee worked diligently for her for over 3 years, and this is their compensation.
Oscar Sanchez – Wage Subtractor
Oscar Sanchez employed workers and had a crew of about 12 people working for him at El Paso Place Apartments on upper Dyer Street. Every week his workers claim that he gave them a different excuse for why he couldn’t pay their wages. During the almost two months that these employees worked for him, they claim that they only received one paltry payment. He currently owes over $5,000 in unpaid wages. The workers nominated him as the wage subtractor because they claim his jobsite is a crime scene. In a city where contractors regularly cut corners when paying wages, Oscar Sanchez stands out.
Family Dollar – Soulsucker
Family Dollar managers in El Paso claim that this company misclassifies managers as workers to avoid having to pay overtime. A federal appeals court agreed in 2008. Managers previously sued Family Dollar in federal court in the 11th Circuit and forced Family Dollar to pay $35 million in unpaid wages and damages. But the company continues to do the same thing. Family Dollar managers agree, Family Dollar easily earns the title “Soulsucker.”
Douglas da Silva – Check Bouncer
Las Vegas-based businessman and owner of the local Artisan Hotel was voted the Check Bouncer by members of the Labor Justice Committee and his former employees. Committee members say they’ve heard many workers complain about employers using hot checks to avoid paying wages owed, but have never seen a hot check writer as egregious as Da Silva. “There were dozens of people working at the hotel and he paid many of us with hot checks,” said former employee Martha Murillo. Mr. da Silva has filed for bankruptcy, but still owes over $40,000 in unpaid wages. The Committee gave him a novelty check to show the considerable debt he owes to his employees.