Houston City Council Passes Anti-Wage Theft Ordinance

Today, Wednesday, November 20th, 2013, Houston City Council made history passing the first municipal ordinance cracking down on wage theft in Texas and only the second in a major metropolis in the U.S. South. The measure passed unanimously.

In passing the Wage Theft Ordinance, Council sends a clear message that intentionally cheating workers of their pay – especially under city contracts – will not be tolerated in Houston.

The ordinance establishes a process housed in the Office of the Inspector General through which employees can bring wage claims forward. Companies with a documented record of wage theft – either final adjudication from a court of competent jurisdiction or a criminal conviction – will be included in a publicly listed database on the City’s website and will be ineligible for city contracts or sub-contracts. Additionally, any company with a criminal conviction of wage theft will be ineligible to receive occupational permits and licenses.

The legal language of the ordinance was developed as a public policy proposal incorporating the demands and vision developed collectively by low-wage workers employed in various industries that had direct personal experience with wage theft. Members of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, the organization spearheading the Down with Wage Theft Campaign,  prioritized the need to increase real consequences for companies and employers that demonstrated disregard for the dignity of workers and wage and hour laws. The ordinance was then submitted to Mayor Parker and promoted in Houston neighborhoods by constituents in each of the city council districts.

Over the past two years, members of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center have educated the public and Council on the social and economic impacts of wage theft by taking to the streets, convening community forums, and meeting with City Council members, business owners, and community members building a coalition of over 35 organizations.

In the Houston area alone, it is estimated that over $750 million dollars are lost due to wage theft among low-wage workers every year. Low wage workers must often seek recourse from community services or government assistance as their poverty is further exacerbated due to the loss of wages when experiencing medical emergencies, lack of food or shelter, and other needs.

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Houston City Council Set to Vote on Wage Theft Ordinance November 13th

Houston, TX. The City of Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, second only to New York City in the number of Fortune 500 headquarters, which as an independent nation would rank as the world’s 30th largest economy has the opportunity to set a historical precedent on November 13th. The likely passage of the proposed Wage Theft Ordinance would make Houston the first city in Texas and only the second major metropolis in the U.S. South to implement real consequences for companies found guilty of wage theft, thus leveling the playing field for ethical businesses that are at a competitive disadvantage against unscrupulous employers.

“As you can imagine, wage theft affected my life emotionally as well as financially. Eventually my dreams vanished as my rightful wages from years of hard work were stolen by an irresponsible employer,” commented Jose Perez, a husband and father who lost his home to foreclosure and was forced to sell his car because he did not receive his earned pay for residential construction work.

Perez and other Houston working families started organizing two years ago to demand City Council take a zero tolerance approach with companies engaging in wage theft. Their dedication is finally paying off with a vote on the proposed Wage Theft Ordinance anticipated for Wednesday, November 13th. The ordinance has been vetted through two Council Committee Hearings and prohibits the City from doing business with companies found guilty of wage theft.

Despite Houston’s overall economic strength and growth, many working families struggle to make ends meet. More than 100 wage and hour violations occur each week[1], affecting workers employed across multiple industries. A recent report estimates that more than $753 million in wages are illegally withheld from low-wage workers in the Houston area each year and nationally studies found that 68% of low-wage workers experienced wage violations each week.[2]

“What frustrates me the most isn’t the impact of wage theft on me personally,” Perez added, “but the fact that these companies that steal our wages get away with little or no consequences. Until it costs employers, wage theft will continue to plague our communities pushing families like mine further into poverty and further from our dreams.”

Who: Affected workers, responsible business owners, community organizations, and faith leaders will speak in favor of the proposed ordinance at the Council Public Session
What: Houston City Council Members hear public comments and vote on proposed Wage Theft Ordinance (copy available at: http://www.houstontx.gov/ordinancefeedback/wagetheft-final.pdf)
When: 9:00am November 13th, 2013
Where: Houston City Hall – Council Chambers (901 Bagby St., 2nd Fl, Houston, Texas 77002)

[1] U.S. Department of Labor. Wage and Hour Compliance Action Data.

[2] “Houston, We Have a Wage Theft Problem” (Fe y Justicia Worker Center, 2012) & “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers (National Employment Law Project, 2009)

Houstonians Expose Impacts of Wage Theft on Victims Ignored by City Council

Carisa Episcopal Pastor“My father worked as a truck driver but his employer didn’t pay him more than $2000 dollars that he owed him on wages. My family was not able to pay rent, utilities, or to fulfill our basic needs including my college tuition or my mother’s diabetes medication while he was a victim of wage theft” said Adalinda Guajardo to City Council Members this past Tuesday, October 15, 2013. To Adalinda, justice for wage theft is necessary for the overall wellbeing of Houston communities.

Pawn Shop BoothAfter two years of diligently pursuing a strong public policy that establishes real consequences for employers that steal wages, 70 participants from the Down With Wage Theft Coalition, which is spearheaded by Fe y Justicia Worker Center and includes business, community and religious leaders, held a press conference and satire outside of City Hall, demanding City Council Members to publicly declare whose side they are on. Participants performed the satire to emphasize the reality many low-wage workers face when they are victims of wage theft as well as highlight the direct and indirect impacts of wage theft on the local economy. A booth was set up with CHIP, Food Stamps (TANF), and WIC applications to accommodate the need for government assistance when workers already living under the federal poverty level are driven further into poverty. The booth also held items ranging from laptops and TVs to jewelry for sale in a mock pawn shop as many low-wage workers are forced to resort to pawning their possessions in order to make ends meet when they are victims of wage theft.

Council Member Andrew Burks
After the press conference, participants marched to the City Annex to meet personally with City Council Members asking for their commitment and support for the proposed ordinance. Staffers from District A’s Helena Brown, District F’s Al Hoang, District J’s Mike Laster, and At-Large 2 Andrew Burks were greeted in the hallway by members of the coalition, including many who have been personally impacted by wage theft, shared their testimonies with Council Members and their staff. Council Member Burks embraced the participants’ zeal for justice and invited the group into his office and committed to support the Anti-Wage Theft Ordinance.

Afterwards, at the City Council Public Session, low-wage workers shared their testimonies and the effects wage theft has had on their families’ lives and economic stability. Adalinda Guajardo, the daughter of a victim of wage theft, presented Council Members with over 1,000 letters she and other FWJC members collected in their respective districts that stated support for the Anti-Wage Theft Ordinance. Durrel Douglas, Texas State Director of Working America, also presented to Council Members over 1,000 handwritten letters by thousands of Houstonians who are demanding City Council act now and support the ordinance.

The Wage Theft Ordinance has been met with grand fervor by the Houston community. If passed, the proposed Anti-Wage Theft ordinance would make Houston the first city in Texas and the 2nd major metropolis in the US South that would create real consequences to companies that have a documented record of failing to pay their employees their legally owed wages. On its third and likely final draft, the ordinance is expected to be up for full Council vote within the next few weeks.

Houstonians to City Council : Who Do You Work For?

Rally 9.19

On Thursday, September 19th business industry leaders and working families gathered in front of City Hall to draw a line in the sand, demanding Council Members to publicly declare whether they will stand up to support a desperately needed Anti Wage Theft Ordinance or protect the status quo of impunity for wage thieves.

walking rally “My family has been involved fighting for this ordinance because we know what it’s like to struggle when you don’t receive the wages you were counting on,” commented Adalinda Guajardo, member of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, “and we are convinced the only way to stop this practice is to increase consequences for companies that have a history, a record of stealing workers’ hard-earned pay.”

In the Houston area alone, more than 100 wage and hour violations occur every single week, affecting workers employed in multiple industries. A recent report estimates that more than $753 million in wages are illegally withheld from low-wage workers in the Houston area each year.

The proposed Anti-Wage Theft ordinance has been through two Council Committee Hearings with ample support and presence of responsible business owners and community members.  Houston would be the first city in Texas and only the 2nd major city in the U.S. southern states to pass an ordinance addressing wage theft. working america 1

“We’ve gone door-to-door talking to thousands of Houstonians collecting over 1,00 handwritten letters with one message: City Council needs to act now and stop allowing a few businesses to take advantage of workers,” commented Durrel Douglas, Texas State Director of Working America. “We’re calling on City Council to listen to the people and not make back room deals with lobbyists and special interest groups.”

If passed, the proposed Anti-Wage Theft ordinance would prohibit the City of Houston from doing business with any company that has a documented record of failing to pay its employees their legally owed wages with an agency or court that enforces wage and hour law.

stop stealing our wages

THE ANTI-WAGE THEFT ORDINANCE – A PRECEDENT-SETTING COMMUNITY IMPROVEMENT – WITHIN HOUSTON’S REACH

For the past two years members of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center have brought to public attention the prevalence of wage theft in the city by taking to the streets, convening community forums, and meeting with City Council members, business owners, and community members to inform them about the direct and indirect impact of wage theft on the local economy.

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The Down with Wage Theft Campaign has been a long process. The legal language of the ordinance was developed as a sound public policy proposal incorporating the demands and vision developed collectively by low-wage workers employed in various industries that had direct personal experience with wage theft. Members of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center prioritized the need to increase real consequences for companies and employers that demonstrated disregard for the dignity of workers and wage and hour laws. The ordinance was then submitted by the Fe y Justicia Worker Center with support from its legal team to Mayor Parker and City Council members, and promoted in Houston neighborhoods by constituents in each of the city council districts.

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The tireless efforts of low-wage workers are paying off! The proposed ordinance was finally brought up for formal discussion at City Hall at the Public Safety Committee on July 23rd, 2013.  At the Hearing, City Attorney Feldman presented an overview of the proposed ordinance and responded to questions and requests for clarification from Council Members, and then comments were open to the public. Responsible business owners, workers, and people of faith spoke out in favor of the ordinance while the full-house of over 200 supporters stood in symbolic agreement. Each speaker provided their perspective on the importance of implementing an ordinance to stop irresponsible businesses from taking advantage of families, the community, and the City of Houston by not paying workers’ the wages they owe them.

After the amazing response of our community at the public hearing, the City of Houston is seeking public input on the proposed Anti Wage Theft Ordinance through the City’s web page. Enter your support for the ANTI-WAGE THEFT ORDINANCE at the following link: http://www.houstontx.gov/feedback-wagetheft.html

Excerpts from a few speakers:

IMG_2865Jose Perez, a construction worker, stated: “I’m a victim of wage theft. Here is what it meant in my life: In order to survive and cover my basic needs, I had to sell my car. I also had to rely on getting my groceries from a food bank. In addition, I lost a property that I was buying because I failed to make the payment. But what frustrates me the most isn’t just the impact of wage theft on me personally, but the fact that these companies that steal our wages get away with little or no consequences”

The Public hearing showed diverse community support for the ordinance, including support from responsible business owners. Stan Marek, the CEO of Marek Brothers Construction who has been in business for 75 years, supported the ordinance, stating, “Companies that play by the rules are being strangled by competitors who are simply breaking the law. Firms that steal wages have a competitive advantage because they’re cheating in every way possible. It used to be that if you ran your business honestly and treated your workers right you could do well, but all that has changed. We can do better and we must.”

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Beatris Arboleda echoed him: “As a responsible family business providing cleaning services, we faced many challenges because it is impossible to compete with irresponsible employers who avoid paying taxes and permits and are stealing wages from the workers. Therefore we endorse the wage theft ordinance because this will compel unscrupulous employers to pay the wages they owe workers. It will set a precedent in the history of Houston and be an incredible asset for the current administration because it will be a pioneer model to be followed by other cities in the state of Texas.

Reverend Ron Lister spoke about the moral and ethical responsibility of business owners and urged City Council members IMG_2888to vote in favor of the ordinance.

Esperanza Rodriguez a caregiver said: We are here because for all of these years we have been dealing with the symptoms of this illness of Wage Theft, and we saw that this problem was growing and expanding. So, as members of the Worker Center we agreed it was time to develop a cure for this disease that was attacking our community, and we helped develop the proposed ordinance.  The Anti-Wage Theft Ordinance will also give the City of Houston the opportunity to be a pioneer in the state of Texas as the first city with an ordinance that helps to guarantee a fair environment for businesses, workers, and community members.”

Olga Castro, a restaurant worker, made the point that “many irresponsible employers are violating the law without receiving any penalty or with almost no consequences. If our legal system requires that violations like stealing be penalized, why isn’t wage theft? Therefore this ordinance is important not just to protect workers who are victims of wage theft but also to restore credibility to our government and to strengthen the integrity of our legal system. I worked 65 to 75 hours a week as a fast food worker performing multiple duties at the same time such as cook, waitress, cashier, and janitor, making minimum wages and with no overtime pay. I also was a victim of wage theft. But I’m not here because of the money that my employer owes me. I’m here because of the impunity and lack of consequences for abusive employers like this.”

 

Please join the Fe y Justicia Worker Center effort to ensure justice for all victims of wage theft, an equal playing field for responsible businesses, and to make the City of Houston a fair and equal work environment.

Together we are writing a transformative chapter in the City of Houston’s history.

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