This groundbreaking report, co-authored by the Labor Justice Committee, uncovers an epidemic of wage and hour violations running rampant in the El Paso area, and the impunity with which employers are able to violate their employees’ rights. Co-authored Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, Border Network for Human Rights, Dr. Cristina Morales, and Eric Murillo, the report provides the first-ever statistical analysis of an epidemic of wage and hour violations occurring among low-wage workers in the El Paso region. In an economy where many workers are struggling to get by, this Report tells the story of local workers who have lost their homes and livelihood due to wage theft and reveals the government’s inability to address these violations. Finally, the authors explore steps that El Paso can take to better protect exploited workers.
Read on for media coverage of the panel discussion regarding the report, and keep watching this space as we push local lawmakers to make enforcement against wage theft a possibility for El Paso workers!
Wage-theft review: Advocacy groups push for fairness in worker pay
One of every five low-wage workers in El Paso makes less than minimum wage, while close to 80 percent earn less than $10 an hour, according to a first-of-its-kind study released on Thursday.
“El Paso’s Newest Crime Wave: A Wage Theft Epidemic in the Borderlands” was released Thursday at the Border Network for Human Rights Center by the three nonprofit groups that commissioned it.
“The numbers show that wage theft is very prevalent,” said Maria Cristina Morales, a professor from Texas A&M University, who conducted the groundbreaking study with Eric Murillo, founder and co-organizer of the Retail Workers Rights Committee. “It was not something we had to work very hard to find.”
Volunteers from the three advocacy groups surveyed more than 250 low-income workers on streets, at bus stops and in community meetings.
A low-income worker is an employee who makes less than the “livable wage.” In El Paso, the “livable wage” is $7.26 an hour for a single person and $15.26 for an adult with a single child.
“As the number of dependents goes up, the livable wage gets higher,” said Morales.
Maria Christina Morales, author of the El Paso wage-theft study, presents her findings Thursday at the Border Network for Human Rights Center office, 2115 Piedras St. The study found that one out of every five low-wage workers in El Paso makes less than minimum wage and that close to 80 percent earn less than $10 an hour. (Vanessa Monsisvais / El Paso Times)
She presented the study results during a joint news conference hosted by the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, the Labor Justice Committee and the Border Network for Human Rights.
The study also found that nearly two-thirds of low-wage workers do not receive overtime pay.
“A lot of times, these workers don’t even know what overtime pay is,” Morales said.
The three groups said that low-income workers are vulnerable to wage theft; that’s when employers withhold payments.
Some cases of wage theft occur when employees are misrepresented as independent contractors, which denies them certain rights and benefits.
“This idea of not paying the workers who work overtime is more common than you think,” Border Network member Fernando Garcia said. “Hopefully, somebody will listen and things will start to change.”
Miguel Miranda, a member of the Border Network for Human Rights, said he could recall one man’s tragic but common story.
“He was hired to put up lights and decorations around a house,” Miranda said. “At the end, the owner said, ‘I don’t like the way it looks — I’m not paying you.’ That abuse is constant, and our people are suffering.”
The study was done to bring awareness about wage theft in El Paso.
The local human-rights groups want something done locally, said Christopher Benoit, a lawyer for the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project.
“Change is slow in Washington and Austin, but we can make a change here with local ordinances,” Benoit said.
State legislators have already taken action on the problem.
The Wage Theft Bill, which was recently signed by Gov. Rick Perry, makes it easier for police to arrest and for prosecutors to charge employers who cheat workers out of their pay.
The wage theft study proposes language that can be used in any local ordinance.
“We provide a criminal and civil option, depending on what lawmakers want to do,” Benoit said. “We can use code compliance officers to deal with complaints.”
The study suggests that any penalties should be harsh enough to discourage employers from withholding wages.
Over the next few months, the advocacy groups will try to meet with local lawmakers to try to get an ordinance passed, Benoit said.
The results of the survey will help make the groups’ case, he said.
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