Legislators Aim to Curb Wage Theft
The stories are all too common. Workers will lay a house foundation or put in long hours in a restaurant – and at the end of the week, they have little or nothing in their wallet to show for it.
Lawyers have a hard time bringing cases, because the laborers may be working illegally. Courts have a hard time prosecuting scofflaw employers, because a boss could make a partial payroll payment to show that he or she intended to pay. But a bill signed into law during this state legislative session gives local law enforcement agencies and lawyers more power to fight wage theft.
Democratic Senator Jose Rodriguez of El Paso wrote Senate Bill 1024. It clarifies that an employer can face penalties for not providing full payment for services. Rodriguez said employees right now hit a brick wall when filing a complaint against an employer and revealing they did get a partial payment.
“That would give the impression to either a prosecutor or to someone that ‘Well, it looks like maybe it’s just a dispute between you and your employer as to how much you are owed in wages,’” Rodriguez said. “That’s a civil matter. That’s not a criminal matter.’”
Rodriguez said his bill makes it clear now that an unpaid employee has a criminal case.
He said the bill hardly got any push back from businesses or lawmakers and organizations concerned with immigration, even though a good chunk of the state’s wage theft cases involve undocumented workers.
“I don’t know if people will perceive it that way,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not a pro-immigrant piece of legislation. It’s a pro-worker piece of legislation. All workers, whether they’re immigrant or not.”
The Workers Defense Project lobbied to get SB 1024 passed. The organization’s Emily Timm said based on complaints made by workers in the Austin area, $6.7 million in wages are not paid to construction workers each year.
“I think responsible businesses can’t compete with companies that cut costs at the expense of their workers,” Timm said.
The new law goes into effect September 1. But for cities like Austin, it could bring little change. Austin police already investigate reported wage theft cases. At the same time, worker rights’ advocates hope the law will strengthen the investigations and bring stiffer penalties to employers that do not pay up.