How far will an unscrupulous employer go to avoid rightfully paying their workers? Pretty far, especially considering the lack of consequences and near impunity employers face for this pervasive crime.
A group of Houston community members discovered this first-hand Friday morning, as they led a peaceful delegation to speak with representatives from Full Service Construction. The Houston demolition and construction company has refused to pay former worker Oscar Suazo, who reported his case of almost $2,000 owed for work completed nearly 2 years ago.
Since Oscar’s report, the Fe y Justicia Worker Center has attempted to communicate with the company regarding the wage dispute, but has only received excuses, aggressive and dismissive behavior (including “This is my company, I pay my workers whatever I want”) and ultimately, complete evasion. The worker resorted to Smalls Claims Court to recover his wages, but the employer once again simply evaded the court’s attempts to serve him, which resulted in his case being dismissed.
Seeing the impotency of the court, and the growing time without his wages, Oscar decided to appeal to his former employer’s sense of morality. A group of faith and community leaders joined Oscar to visit Full Service Construction on the southeast side of Houston, in an attempt to reach a resolution.
However, they were faced by a disdainful employer, who not only denied knowing Oscar, but once again, attempted to evade the delegation – fleeing the scene in his truck. When community members showed him a company paystub, clearly titled “Full Service Construction” with the amounts of “48 hrs @ 7.00”, he responded by making threats to the worker and the delegation.
After threatening community members with phrases such as “This will get bad if you all don’t leave” and “You don’t know what I can do to you”, the company owner, now identified as Fernando Chapa, drove back into his house. After getting out of his truck, Mr. Chapa pulled out a gun and began pointing it at the various community members standing on the public sidewalk.
Organizers of the delegation quickly alerted the Houston Police Department, who showed up to deal with the incident. After speaking with the employer and the persons directly threatened, HPD filed two reports against Mr. Chapa, one for a Labor Dispute and one for Deadly Conduct.
Mr. Chapa of Full Service Construction habitually paid his workers below minimum wage with no overtime, denied his workers of entire weeks’ worth of pay (both resulting in thousands of dollars in stolen wages), and publicly threatened community members with a gun – one would think he’s probably sitting in a jail cell this very moment. Apparently, not in our city.
The employer is free to continue making a business out of exploiting Houston workers, while Oscar, who has still not received a cent of his wages, must go back to Small Claims Court to re-file his case – losing another $104 to pay the filing fee, not to mention his time and energy.
Oscar’s case is unique because he chose to denounce his employer and bring light to his ongoing abuse. However, he’s just one of thousands of workers who undergo this type of labor abuse in the Houston area. As Oscar so eloquently put it, “The consequences are just so many, but so are the needs that people have.”
Most of us at some point have stayed in a job where we weren’t happy or knew that we weren’t being treated the way we should have. The reasons may have varied, but at that point they were enough for us to stay. Now imagine instead that your reasons aren’t saving up for a trip or waiting for a promotion, but rather, the possibility of not being able to put food on the table that evening or missing a payment for your sick family member’s medicine. Add to that equation the threat of physical violence for even attempting to assert basic respect on the job, and you might be getting closer to the reality faced by Oscar and many of his coworkers.
While this employer’s behavior is definitely extreme, worker intimidation is extremely common in silencing workplace abuse. This employer’s brazen unscrupulousness is more indicative of the lack of consequences and culture of impunity when it comes to workplace protections and enforcement of basic wage laws. It also highlights the fact that workers and community members are having to take matters into their own hands, because the systems and institutions charged with enforcing basic protections like safety and pay on the jobs are failing our workers.
As one of the faith leaders part of the delegation so keenly noted as we left: “He [the employer] stole thousands of dollars in wages and pointed a gun at a group of people, and nothing happened to him.”
Let’s remember that wage theft is not an accident; it is a calculated criminal act. Responsible, ethical business is completely possible, but unfortunately is being run down by those who choose to take the easy way out. An employer who knowingly violates labor laws is not an upstanding businessman saving a few bucks. In the end, he is hardly any different from the pickpocket or robber, and the law should treat him as such.