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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A Journey for Justice: Capital Improvement Plan District Meetings

photo (11)Due to the extent of the problem of wage theft in Houston, and especially it’s impact on low-income minority communities, the workers and members of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, Texas, decided to stand up and to fight back for what belongs to them: not just to claim their salaries that were stolen but also to fight for their dignity.

When workers learned that the City of Houston was scheduling Capital Improvement Project (CIP) meetings in the neighborhoods to address the planning for various improvements, the workers organized to participate in these public meetings in order to call the attention of the City Council members to the Wage Theft issue affecting workers and its widespread impact on the community.

On March 5, workers attended the CIP meeting in District C. Adalinda Guajardo, a daughter of a worker who was a victim of wage theft tried to address this issue.  The staff of City Council member Ellen Cohen was very strongly opposed to letting Adalinda talk in the public meeting. But she did not give up and claimed her right to freedom of speech. She took the microphone and proudly represented her community.

When Adalinda Guajardo stated: “My understanding is that this meeting is to discuss infrastructure improvements in our neighborhood. This is very important because our streets and community buildings need good maintenance, but we think there is also a need to improve some regulations for the wellbeing of our communities.“ Ciy Council Member Ellen Cohen interrupted her several times trying to stop Adalinda’s speech. However, Adalinda was firm in her statement until the end.

ADALINA8“It was challenging when they tried to stop me, but in the end I showed them that we are not alone anymore, we are united and stronger,” Adalinda said.

On March 6, workers decided to attend the District J CIP public meeting. City Council Member, Mark Lester, welcomed workers. He acknowledged the Fe y Justicia Worker Center members attending the meeting saying, “they are bringing an important message to the community.”

Mitzi Ordoñez, a victim of wage theft in the restaurant industry stated,  “Wage Theft is an epidemic in our city and we think that it’s time to fulfill the promises made to our community not just to improve our neighborhood but also to improve our lives.”  At the end many people attending the meeting congratulated Mitzi for her statement. City Council member Lester also approached her and thanked her for her participation.

On March 19, workers attended the CIP Meeting of District B, but when City Council Member Jerry Davis, saw the team of “canaries” (workers wearing the yellow shirts of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center),  he changed the program. At the end he did not let the public take the microphone to put their questions on the floor; instead he closed the meeting as soon the report was made and said that some tables were set out in the back in case the public had questions. Workers approached CCM Davis to talk with him about Wage Theft, but he told them, “I’m busy right now, but you can schedule a meeting with my staff later.”    The workers went to his staff requesting the meeting, but they were told that they can call the office to follow up.

On March 21, members of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center attended the meeting of district K with CCM Larry Green.  Again, workers were told that just projects for improvement in the neighborhoods could be addressed in the meeting. Jose Guajardo raised the point of a big flooding problem at Willowbend and Hillcroft. In the maps given out, this area was marked as an area of greater need, but it did not appear in the list of projects; instead it was marked as not funded.   The CIP speakers responded to  Jose’s concern about the neighborhood with a long story that they do not have money in this cycle for that project, and Jose responded addressing the Wage Theft Problem.

Jose said, “I want to bring an important issue to the floor. We are constituents of your district and wage theft is a big problem in this district. If the wages that we already earned are stolen by employers, we will not be able to fulfill our needs.  As a consequence of this, we will not have money for spending and local responsible businesses’ sales will go down. Furthermore, payroll taxes will not be paid so all of us lose out on important funding for education, public services, and security in our community.”

Jose was honored putting in the spotlight the message of his coworkers and educating the community about Wage’s Theft.

CCMOn March 27, Fe and Justicia worker members appeared in the CIP meeting of District E where City Council member Dave Martin told to the workers, “Keep me posted about wage theft. What’s going on?” the workers explained to him and he said. “If a company does not pay the wages to the workers that they already earned, it’s fair what you’re doing.” Griselda Lopez, the wife of a construction worker, took the microphone and stated:  “It’s time to pass an ordinance to sanction abusive employers that steal wages!! NOW!!”

When the team of canaries of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center arrived at every CIP meeting they were recognized as the Wage Theft Workers. Some City Council members tried to stop them, others listened to them. What is important is that what they did mobilizing on the streets and in the CIP meetings gave them the power to be at the table discussing the need for an ordinance with the Mayor Annise Parker.  They were empowered and gained respect for themselves and for the Wage Theft cause. SI SE PUEDE!

The Wage Theft Campaign is driven by a coalition of Houston community, faith, and labor organizations, responsible businesses and individuals who believe in standing up for workers’ rights to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and making Houston a zero-tolerance place for wage’s theft and a just and prosperous place to work. The campaign is spear-headed by the Fe y Justicia Worker Center and supported by the coalition. To learn more about the campaign and what you can do to bring down wage theft in Houston, visit www.downwithwagetheft.org

Calling all workers! Are you ready to celebrate?

When was the last time you celebrated a worker? How about the last time you celebrated the value of your own work? In the city where millionaires & corporations get all the glory, it’s time we celebrated the folks who make a difference in our daily lives! Join us for a worker speak-out, bring your favorite poem, song, picture, or story that highlights the value of your work! It’s time we make our voices heard and remind our politicians that WE move our city forward!

Featuring an interactive art project, spoken word performances, original songs from our worker members, dancing and music from The Free Radicals!

Wednesday November 14, 2012

4pm – 6pm

Hermann Square Park – In front of City Hall steps

We’ll have an open mic to highlight your worker stories, songs, music, and experiences! Feel free to bring pictures of your work & your family! WORK ATTIRE ENCOURAGED! 

info@downwithwagetheft.org or 281-940-4329

Save the Date: “Made in L.A.” Screening and Discussion

Join us for an inspiring story about worker solidarity, hear from Houston workers in the struggle, and support a great local coffee shop fighting to end human trafficking!

WHAT: Screening of the Award-Winning Documentary Made in L.A.followed by a panel discussion

WHEN: Thursday November 8 – 6:00pm

WHERE: A 2nd Cup Coffee (1035 E. 11th St. – inside Vineyard Church)

WHO: Free and open to the public, panel featuring Houston workers and community leaders

For more information: info@downwithwagetheft.org or call 281-940-4329

Sponsored by the Fe y Justicia Worker Center in collaboration with A 2nd Cup