On Saturday July 28, workers and community members from the Gulfton area gathered at the Baker-Ripley Community Center to learn about worker’s rights resources and discuss how their families and communities are affected by wage theft. Over 45 people attended the forum, which featured representatives from the Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division and District J Councilmember Mike Laster’s Office.
The forum began with a brief introduction about the resources available to workers in the community, and remarks from some of the invited guests. Participants learned about the DOL’s Wage & Hour Division and the work the agency does to enforce the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) and other relevant wage laws. Two representatives from Councilmember Mike Laster’s office also talked about the resources available for District J constituents and the Councilmember’s support for the workers’ fight to end wage theft.
Two members of the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, the organization sponsoring the event, spoke about their personal experience with wage theft and talked about the importance of being involved in a larger movement to end these abuses. Antonio Renovato, a roofing sub-contractor, shared his latest case of wage theft, for which he is still owed over $4,000.
Olga Liria, a single mother and former restaurant waitress, fired up the forum with her empowering testimony. She shared her recent experience working at a popular Houston restaurant, where she was made to work off the clock, was often paid with checks with no funds, and is still owed $1,500 in back pay.
“What I think is that all of us that have our good health should have the strength to work, we should summon the will to work, we should have the responsibility to do our jobs well and the RIGHT to collect our wages. When this doesn’t happen, we should have the courage to demand to be paid what is already ours, what we have already earned.”
Both Olga and Antonio stressed the fact that this was not the first time that they had experienced wage theft in their jobs.
The last half of the forum consisted of group dialogues with all the participants – including DOL and Worker Center representatives. The groups discussed the effects and causes of wage theft in their community, and how they could work together to fight this. While the community faces many obstacles – lack of enforcement, information on labor laws, & resources to pursue claims – they were nonetheless hopeful about their strength and potential once they joined together.
The eventclosed out with a call to action to all community participants which echoed the sentiments of the day’s forum: upholding the value of our work. A fight to bring down wage theft is not only a fight for the monetary value of our work – our wages earned – but also for the dignity and respect we deserve while earning a living.
A large number of the wage theft cases that come to HIWJ are from workers living in the Gulfton/Sharpstown and surrounding neighborhoods. Many workers in this community are underemployed and live pay-check-to-paycheck, with nearly half earning incomes below $25,000. Approximately 40 percent of the families with young children in the community live below the poverty level, and few benefit from any form of public assistance. Wage theft is particularly egregious in that it disproportionately impacts those who already live in poverty.