National, State, and Local Labor Updates

As we continue fighting for labor justice in El Paso, we just wanted to share a few exciting updates and victories that have happened over the last month.

In national news, the Labor Justice Committee signed on to a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis asking her and the Department of Labor to limit the reach of the “companionship exemption” to the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Many Committee members work as home care aides.  These members often work shifts that are 72 hours or longer, usually by themselves.  However, as currently written, federal regulation excludes home care aids from minimum wage and overtime protections.  This can be ended at any time by Secretary Solis.  Members of our community who are caring for our parents and grandparents deserve fair compensation for their tireless efforts!  To learn more, click here.

On a statewide level, the Texas legislature passed a law making it easier for wage theft to be prosecuted criminally!  A big thank you to co-sponsor and local state senator Jose Rodriguez!

Texas law tougher on cheating employers

by Vic Kolenc\ El Paso Times
Posted: 06/15/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT
 A revised state law, recently signed by Gov. Rick Perry, is aimed at cracking down on employers who don’t pay their employees.

The Wage Theft Bill, sponsored by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, revised the theft-of-services law to make it easier for police to arrest and prosecutors to charge employers who cheat workers out of their pay, according to the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, an El Paso legal defense organization that helped draft the bill.

The revision makes it easier for police and prosecutors to go after employers with a repeated pattern of not paying employees, said Chris Benoit, a lawyer for the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project.

The revision closes a loophole that allowed employers to avoid criminal theft-of-services charges by making a minimal payment to their workers, Benoit said.

This is aimed at fly-by-night employers who routinely don’t pay workers, Benoit said. It’s not aimed at employers who miss a payroll for good reasons, he said.

Wage theft is common in El Paso, mostly affecting day laborers in the construction industry, he said.

Ricardo Madrid, an El Paso construction worker who said he recently had an out-of-state employer skip out of town without paying him and other workers for their weeks of work at a hotel construction site, said he hopes the revised law has teeth to get those employers.

“This (wage theft) is very prevalent in the El Paso borderland. Unfortunately it happens a lot, especially to Latinos,” said Madrid, 45, who said he’s been in the construction industry off and on most of his life. “This has happened to me several times.”

Madrid said the contractor paid him once, but left town without paying him about $800 for two weeks of work.

Benoit said Austin has been going after wage theft for several years and has been prosecuting about five employers a year.

In El Paso, the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project is now working with the state district attorney’s office on ways to start using the revised law, Benoit said. The El Paso Police Department also needs to be educated on how to use the revised law, he said.

“We hope this deters employers from doing this (wage theft),” Benoit said.

El Diario article and more after the jump!
Law passed to make it easier to punish employers who rob wages
(For the original article in Spanish,  click here.)
Lorena Figuero
El Diario de El Paso | 15-06-2011 | 01:21

Employers in El Paso who abuse their workers by committing wage “theft” will no longer find it easy to do.

And it’s because of a new state law that will make it easier to arrest and prosecute this type of employer, who could be punished with jail time and economic sanctions.

Bill SB 1024, signed in to law at the end of May, gives victims legal tools to recover their wages and closes a legal vacuum in the penal code that allows abusive employers to avoid criminal charges.  The legislation will go in to effect on September 1.

“The district attorneys and officials that enforce Texas law can send a strong message to employers that swindle their workers,” said Chris Benoit yesterday, labor attorney at Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project.

They and other local civil rights organizations have said that low-wage workers, especially Latinos that work in construction or as domestic workers have become the primary victims of employers in El Paso who, on top of not offering health insurance or other benefits, “rob” their wages.

The “theft” happens when employers pay less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, don’t pay in full, or at all.

The organizations have also mentioned that abused workers are threatened by their employers when they try to recover the wages they are owed.

SB 1024, sponsored by Senator Jose Rodriguez in collaboration with representative Eddie Rodriguez, with his bill HB 2196, will put a halt to this situation by reforming the theft of services statute as it currently exists in the Texas penal code, said Benoit.

He explained that this statute has been difficult to apply to cases of wage “theft” especially when the victims don’t have proof of the hours they worked.  This situation is seen most by day laborers, who are contracted on a temporary basis and without a contract.

He added that the legal vacuum that currently exists in the law has allowed abusive employers to protect themselves from sanctions by paying their victims just a fraction of what they are owed.

Benoit indicated that the new legislation broadens the theft of services statute to allow for criminal charges against employers who don’t pay all of the wages they owe to their workers, allowing for jail time and economic fines as a way to obligate employers to settle what they owe.

Members of the Labor Justice Committee, a community organization that works with victims of wage theft, applauded the new legislation.

One member of the Committee, Landy Mendoza, said that she was a victim of wage “theft” in 2010.  Even though she reported what had happened, the authorities told her they couldn’t do anything since her employer had paid her, although not in full, during the first weeks she worked.

With the new law, Mendoza could recover the rest of what she’s owed from her employer.

Other workers could do so as well; workers who are in the same situation and who have reported this type of abuse to organizations, like the Civil Rights Project, who has handled many similar cases and recovered over $100,000 in “stolen” wages over the last few years.

This year the civil organization filed a case on behalf of over twenty people who worked at a pallet factory who are trying to recover their wages and economic compensation for working overtime, mentioned Benoit, who said that reports of “wage theft” have increased over the last few years.

He said that domestic workers as well as construction workers are the ones who have been the most abused.

Benoit added that his organization as well as Border Network for Human Rights and UTEP will publish a report to expose the rate of wage “theft” and other injustices that happen to low-wage workers on the border.

He added that the report, based on about 300 surveys, will be ready next week.

Its results and recommendations will be given to the city and the county of El Paso to push authorities to legislate and improve labor conditions for workers, he added.

Finally, on a local level, El Diario covered one of our protests, held in support of a Committee member who is owed over $3000 in unpaid wages!

Group demands labor justice for a woman

(For the original article in Spanish,  click here.)
José Santos
El Diario | 21-06-2011 | 20:41

El Paso – Dozens of people congregated to fight for labor justice.  This took place this afternoon in the 300 block of Glenwood Street.

Mario Ruiz/El Diario de El Paso

Shalini Thomas, of the Labor Justice Committee, told us the reason for the protest.  “We are holding this protest to defend the rights of one of our members who worked more than 8 hours a day,” said Thomas, “whose employer still owes her money.”

Sandra Luz Reina worked from 12 – 14 hours a day and was paid $50.  “I worked from 2 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon,” said Reina, “first she paid me $40 a day, then she raised my wage to $50 but that was when she asked me to do everything.”

Reina was in charge of making food for the business owned by the person who hired her.

The Labor Justice Committee focuses on protecting the rights of workers to ensure just pay and protect against labor abuses.  “I am here to fight for my rights,” said Reina.

Reina is about to lose her house as she owes $700 and needed to pay the debt by this afternoon or she would be evicted.

According to the Committee’s calculations, Reina is owed about $4,800 in for working overtime and for the days that the employer owes her for the work she completed.

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