Inaugural Houston Wage Theft Forum

On Thursday October 6th, 2011, HIWJ held its first Houston Wage Theft Forum to expose the issue of wage theft in the city of Houston and kick-off its Campaing to End Wage Theft. Over 60 members of the Houston faith, labor, and professional communities alongside students, volunteers, and community members joined our panel of workers and responsible businesses to learn more about an increasing problem and our city and what we can do to stop it.

The panel, moderated by Pancho Arguelles – long-time human rights activist and current Co-Director of Colectivo Flatlander – consisted of various workers from the construction, domestic work, and restaurant industries who shared their personal experiences of wage theft working in Houston. They were joined by Jerry Nevlud, President and CEO of Associated General Constractos-Houston and Victoria Marcus, owner of Victoria’s Linen’s and member of Kol Halev Synagogue, who contributed their responsible business and faith perspectives on upholding worker’s rights and ensuring a sustainable workplace with dignity and respect.

Workers from the construction, domestic work, and restaurant industries shared their experiences with wage theft and the ways in which they handles these injustices.

Isaias Avelar  and 13 other workers did commercial construction work for a company for 3 months over the summer. They were usually paid in cash by one of the supervisors. Towards the end of their work, they were told they would only be paid when the project was completed, even though they were hourly employees. When the work was finished, they went to the company to receive their due payments, but the supervisor never showed up. When they demanded to speak with someone about getting paid, the company called security and they were kicked out of the building. Until this day, the company has not returned their calls and they have not been paid their almost  $25,000 in due wages.

Lucy Quintanar worked as a live-in domestic worker, caring for the children, cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking, etc. She slept in a closet-like room with nothing more than a bed and a light bulb and worked over 15hours a day. One day her employer asked her to clean the family’s pool because a lot of leaves and dirt had accumulated at the bottom. Lucy couldn’t get to it with the long-handled net, so she talked to her employer whose proposed solution was that Lucy should jump in the pool and get it out with her own hands. Lucy refused, and her employer fired her on the spot leaving her without income and without shelter within minutes.  She is still owed for a few weeks of work at the agreed rate of $150/week, which calculates out to $2/hour for a 75hour work week.

John Berry is thirty years old and he and his wife Jamie have lived in Houston for 5 years.   His wage theft occurred over the two years that he worked as a short order cook at a local cafe.  His payroll problems included late checks, checks that bounced, and checks with no record of taxes withheld besides a dollar amount.  Eventually he found that he had taken two cuts in pay without being notified by his employer.  His last two weeks of employment he worked every day training two replacements, only to find that his pay rate had been changed to a “weekly salary” that totaled much less than his hourly rate would have.  He did not receive a W-2 form for the months worked in 2010, and strongly suspects his report for 2009 was fabricated.  It was made so difficult to receive and cash his paychecks that he felt relieved to get any money out of them, consequently he never complained about it and to date has made no effort to recover any of the wages that were stolen.

We want to extend our extreme gratitude to all the workers who had the courage to speak out about the injustices they experienced in the workplace. Work consumes the greatest number of hours in our day. We spend more time at work than we do with our families or even than we do sleeping. So if you’re not treated fairly, if your basic human dignity is not recognized at work, not only are there economic and physical consequences for you and your family, but it changes you whole outlook on life, your sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, the workers at the forum were just a very small fraction of workers all around Houston who’ve been victims of wage theft; some of them have come to the worker’s center, other have sought out help from government agencies or attorneys, still others remain silent about their experiences because of lack of information about their rights, for fear of retaliation, or for the sad realization that in these tough economic times, having a job under dire conditions might be better than having no job at all.

But is that really what our city is about? In Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, a place that boasts job creation and economic prosperity even when the rest of the country struggles, why are workers still having to choose between paying their rent of putting food on the table, why are they still being denied the basic right of being paid for the work they do. Some days we can hardly believe we are fighting for such basic rights – simply the right to be paid for each hour worked!

…Well we believe, as well as many of you, that our city can do better. Which is why we are fighting to end wage theft in Houston and make our city a place that does not stand for these types of labor abuses. But we can’t do this without your help. Check out how you can get involved and help make Houston a just and prosperous place to work!

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