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Archive for the ‘Wage Theft’ Category

By Lizzy Brady

Earlier this month on Thursday, September 5th, Rev. CJ Hawking, Fr. Larry Dowling, and Rev. Tim Yaeger linked arms in an act of civil disobedience, and raised their voices in solidarity with Walmart workers at a demonstration outside the Walmart in the River North neighborhood. The Arise Chicago team stood alongside Walmart workers as part of a larger demonstration across the United States. On the heels of the fast-food workers’ staged walkouts to raise minimum wage to $15 an hour, Walmart workers’ nationwide demanded better pay, improved working conditions, and reinforcement of the right for workers to organize without retaliation.

walmart action

With 1.3 million employers, Walmart is the largest employer in 25 states, and has raked in more than $30 billion just in the second quarter of this year. 2.2 million people worldwide are employed by Walmart, totaling 11,000 stores in 27 countries. The demonstrations are pushing for a commitment to a $25,000 salary, as well as demanding a reinstatement of Walmart employees recently fired after filing a complaint — a clear violation of US labor law protecting workers from retaliation.

I went to the Walmart Worker strike on my second day of interning with Arise, which turned out to be a beautifully accurate introduction to the work that we do. Although it’s been a few weeks since the Walmart Workers strike, the picture of Rev. CJ Hawking, Fr. Larry Dowling, and Tim Yaeger standing in solidarity with the Walmart workers is still so clear in my mind. These days, I’m often reminded of 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” What a challenging reminder not to treat the suffering of the exploited as an independent entity detached from ourselves, nor ignore the cries of the oppressed with ignorant explanations for the cause of poverty. May faith communities continue to shake the dust off our dry bones, and “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). I’m inspired by the men and women I have met that are pursuing justice for the oppressed in this city, and I pray that our God will continue to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Lizzy Brady is an intern at Arise Chicago and a student at Wheaton College.

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by Spencer Woodman

This article originally appeared in In These Times

Meet Julie A. Su, bane of the deadbeat employer

Employment law investigators handcuffing and hauling exploitative bosses into jail is hardly a common occurrence. Yet California may be changing this.

At around 7 p.m. on April 4, along a drab commercial stretch outside San Diego, a team of four U.S. Marshals and a state labor department investigator named Craig Eastep intercepted and arrested local restaurateur David Dadon as he left his hotel room. Two days earlier, federal agents had arrested Dadon’s son Barry. The pair had formerly co-owned the State Street Grill, which was the subject of a lengthy wage theft investigation by California’s labor department.

A member of California’s new unit of gun-toting officers charged with investigating criminal violations of labor code, Eastep had been examining the Dadon family restaurant for the past year, his investigation revealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged unpaid wages. The father and son were charged with a number of crimes, including grand theft of labor.

(When contacted by In These Times, Barry Dadon’s attorney said that his client maintains that “he never cheated or stole from any employees,” and that his father made the business decisions at the restaurant. David Dadon could not be reached for comment.)

Employment law investigators handcuffing and hauling exploitative bosses into jail is hardly a common occurrence. Yet California may be changing this, thanks largely to the efforts of Julie A. Su, the state’s new labor commissioner. Since Gov. Jerry Brown (D) appointed her in 2011, Su has quietly reworked the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) into what could be the most aggressive and effective state labor law enforcement division in the country.

“Employers who break the law have learned that the chances of getting caught are slim and the costs, if they are caught, are marginal—the cost of doing business,” Su tells In These Times. “It’s my job to change that calculus and we are finding every efficiency possible to maximize the effectiveness of our division.”

Under Su’s management, DLSE has streamlined its administration, cut waste and trained investigators. These efforts multiplied its enforcement capabilities, Su says, allowing it to launch a proactive campaign to tame the state’s widespread violations of employment law. The Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) now stands in sharp contrast to other state labor departments across the country, many of which have seen their bud gets shrink while the workforces they police have ballooned, leaving many departments with swelling caseloads and weakened morale.

A top priority for Su’s administration is to stamp out wage theft—the deliberate non-payment of money owed to employees. Last year, Su announced the formation of the Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU), a team of six armed investigators tasked with pursuing exploitative employers. Since then, the division has filed 10 felony wage-theft cases against employers in the state, including the State Street Grill.

In 2012, the DLSE’s Bureau of Field Enforcement (BOFE) assessed more than five times the amount of owed minimum wages and more than seven times the amount of owed overtime pay than in 2010—the year before Su took office—despite the fact that field enforcement staffing levels increased by less than 5 percent from 2010 to 2012. Both of those totals made 2012 by far the highest volume year ever for DLSE’s investigators.

Su made headlines in January when her investigators fined Quetico, a warehouse operator, $1.3 million for systematically underpaying workers. (The company rejects the charges and has filed an appeal; a hearing is scheduled for September.) Each month since, Su has rolled out high-profile fines against major California companies.

In recent years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has opposed stronger employee protections. Yet Su has won broad support from the state’s major business associations, including the California Chamber—allies that Su identifies as essential to her success. “I believe very strongly that there’s a lot of common ground between what’s good for employers and what’s good for workers,” says Su. “Good employers know that their profitability, stability and long-term success are all tied to the continual well-being of their workers. ”

Su has emphasized to the business community that in the absence of strong enforcement, unscrupulous employers gain an unfair advantage by mistreating workers. This, she says, undercuts upright businesses and creates a structural tendency toward illegal and exploitative business practices.

“We are very supportive of her efforts to create a more level playing field for all of our employers who are trying to comply with the law,” says Jennifer Barrera, a policy advocate at the California Chamber, which is the state’s largest business association. “She does a great job of communicating exactly what she is doing and has created a level of transparency that removes the suspicion that the labor commissioner is coming after anyone and everyone.”

Partially because of the business community’s input, the Bureau of Field Enforcement is taking extra care not to impose inspections on law-abiding businesses. To that end, the division has improved its targeting strategies and is spending extra energy in the initial phase of investigations to make sure a company is worth examining.

“It’s an example of emphasizing quality over quantity,” says Su. That means more pre-inspection work, such as cooperating with labor, community and business groups to identify targets, surveilling businesses and conducting employee interviews off-site (where they can freely speak without fear of retaliation), and using information from wage-theft claims to target employers for broader investigation. The result, says Su, has been an increase in the percentage of employer inspections that lead to citations. In 2012, the department’s ratio of citations to inspections was 80 percent, compared to an average of 48 percent between 2002 and 2010.

Employers often punish employees who share information with authorities during a workplace investigation, which can discourage employees from cooperating and prolong, or even thwart, investigations. To address this, in addition to conducting off-site interviews, Su’s administration cut out several intermediary steps for workers seeking to file retaliation complaints.

In the past, employees who believed they had been retaliated against for cooperating with a BOFE investigation had to bring their complaint to a separate department, rather than the BOFE deputy conducting the investigation. Now, when a worker approaches a BOFE investigator to report retaliation, the investigator works with other DLSE deputies to ensure that the complaint is assigned to a retaliation investigator and dealt with immediately. Su also reworked the department’s complaint forms to include sections where witnesses to retaliation could confidentially describe their workplace experiences without any fear of the information making it back to management.

Su’s effort to rein in management retaliation is one of the numerous steps she’s taken to streamline the division. When asked to describe one example of a key reform that she’d implemented, Su listed nine categories—and various subcategories—of changes she’s made. The point seems clear: There’s nothing simple about reforming a government agency. “It’s been an arduous two years for us,” says Su.

Although Su isn’t an expert on the problems facing other labor departments around the country, she does think her administration’s general approach can be replicated. Her main guiding principle seems to be a relentless critical examination of how things are done. “It’s about never thinking you should continue doing something just because that’s the way it’s been done before,” says Su. “That is one thing I never want to hear.”

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Spencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencerwoodman and reach him via email at Contactspencerwoodman@gmail.com.

More information about Spencer Woodman

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Re-posted from the Employment Justice Center’s blog

DC workers scored some major victories yesterday when the DC Council passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act as part of this year’s District budget. The Act contained unprecedented protections against wage theft, including allowing for damages up to triple the unpaid wages when businesses steal from their employees.

“This is a huge leap forward for DC workers,” said EJC Deputy Director Ari Weisbard. “Without sufficient damages for wage theft violations, there is nothing to deter unscrupulous employers from stealing their workers’ wages and workers receive no compensation for all of the difficulties they experience when they have to wait for months to be paid what they’re owed.”

The new protections include:

  • Increasing the maximum liquidated damages a worker can collect from equal to the wages they’re owed to triple that amount;
  • Allowing workers on DC or federal contracts to rely on Service Contract Act or Davis-Bacon Act wage rates when filing local Wage Payment Act claims;
  • Requiring the Office of Wage-Hour to investigate and apply DC’s Living Wage or federal prevailing rates to covered workers, instead of assuming only the minimum wage will apply;
  • Requiring the Office of Wage- Hour to seek liquidated damages on behalf of workers and not just help recover the wages themselves;
  • Requiring the Office of Wage-Hour to communicate and consult with workers more fully throughout the process of investigating claims and enforcing the law; and
  • Full funding to implement the Workplace Fraud Amendment Act, which was passed last year and protects construction workers from misclassification as independent contractors.

“I’m caught up with overdraft fees from my bank, due to the fact that I was not paid on time and my bills are on auto pay. I have fees from not being able to pay my rent on time,” said Yvonne Johnson, a victim of wage theft, in her testimony at the DOES budget hearing on May 1. The victory was especially welcome to Johnson, who was told by the Office of Wage-Hour that the office was unable to help her collect liquidated damages on her unpaid wages. ”I’m so excited that we finally got heard and we’re finally getting some action. I feel a big relief, that we went and we fought for what we deserve!”

The path for the legislation was paved by big mobilizations and organizing by the DC Wage Theft Coalition, which includes workers, unions, and nonprofit organizations like the Employment Justice Center, DC Jobs with Justice, Our DC, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center-DC.

“We are all victims of wage theft,” said Howard Mayo, a lifelong DC resident and EJC activist. “First the victimized worker, and then the D.C. taxpayers who support those workers that later must rely on the overburdened rolls of human services agencies.”

Though Mayo is pleased with the progress made with the Budget Support Act, he acknowledges that DC still has a long way to go. “Fines, suspensions and the revocation of licenses must eventually be tools available to the Office of Wage Hour,” said Mayo. “Thank you Councilmember Barry for your unwavering support and leadership, and the City Council for taking this important first step.”

Weisbard agrees that despite these extraordinary advances for DC workers, there is still more work to do to protect DC workers from wage theft. “Ultimately, broader reforms of wage and hour laws will be necessary,” said Weisbard. “DC can still do better to deter employers from committing wage theft. We still need stronger administrative processes to ensure that workers have access to fair adjudications of their claims. But today is a day to celebrate what we’ve won and commit to keep fighting for more justice for workers.”

Visit the Employment Justice Center here.

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After spontaneous strike to protest wage issues, textile workers’ partnership with community organization and union leads to victory

As national union rates hit all-time low, victory shows promise of community partnerships, immigrant organizing for reversing labor’s decline

The mostly Latino immigrant packers and machine operators of Artistic Stitches, Inc., an embroidery company with contracts with some of Chicago’s largest businesses like Chase Bank, declared victory Thursday after a job walkout in protest of wage issues and an innovative community organization/union partnership led to a successful union drive.

At a time when American union rates have reached their lowest in nearly a century, the campaign shows the potential for the labor movement’s revitalization with innovative new organizing strategies.

“Union membership is at an all-time low, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Jorge Mujica, organizer for Arise Chicago.

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

Concerns about job security and possible violations of Illinois minimum wage law led the workforce to walk off the job the day after Thanksgiving. Workers were laid off near the end of every year, then rehired as apprentices, at apprenticeship wages–despite the fact that many had worked at the factory for years. They did not receive any holiday pay despite working through major holidays like Thanksgiving, which proved to be the last straw for workers who walked off the job the day after Thanksgiving this year.

“We decided to walk off the job because management said they weren’t going to pay us holiday pay for working on Thanksgiving,” said Juana Cortez, a worker at the factory.

The mostly immigrant work force stood together to demand they be treated with dignity and respect on the job.

“Now, we can defend ourselves from the mistreatment, have paid vacations and holidays. Now, there can be equality,” said Juana Cortez.

Workers approached the interfaith workers’ rights organization Arise Chicago, who assisted in organizing co-workers to know their rights on the job. Selecting Workers United as their union with which to affiliate, the workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election. Last week, the workers won by a decisive majority and now have union representation.

“The relationship between the workers center and our union has been perfect,” said Margarita Klein, staff director of Workers United.  “And this is only the beginning.”

Cortez had the following message for other workers in a situation like hers: “If something unjust is happening to you at work, there are organizations like Arise and Workers United that can help protect you.”

The campaign’s success shows the potential for labor’s revitalization at a time when it is in deep distress. Recently released figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that union membership is at its lowest percentage in nearly a century, leading many commentators to declare that labor is continuing to die a slow, agonizing death. The Stitches workers’ victory demonstrates this is not the case.

“If you are only thinking of traditional campaigns and old forms of worker organization, you may be disappointed. But when you adopt a broader view, like our point of view on the ground, you see signs of hope and progress. Workers organizing in nontraditional sectors, who are self-organizing, who are striking first–successful campaigns like these show that there are actually very promising signs of life to be found in the movement. Labor can turn the corner with nontraditional organizing strategies like the ones these workers used,” said Adam Kader, Arise Chicago Worker Center program director.

The rise of alternative organizing strategies nationally shows that many workers want to organize.

“It isn’t that workers don’t want representation,” said Kader. “Workers are clearly hungry for a voice on the job. Dozens of low-wage sector workers contact Arise Chicago’s Worker Center office daily, detailing incredible amounts of abuse. But many times, these workers don’t have access to unions.  Workers, like those at Stitches did, reach out to different organizations–often churches–for help, who are connected to Arise Chicago. When community groups like Arise work together with unions like Workers United, we can help bridge that gap so workers’ rights can be respected on the job.”

In addition, promising gains have been made for labor nationally in states like California, where, over the last year, union membership has actually increased by 110,000 members, largely because unions have taken the organizing of immigrant workers seriously.

For a full revitalization of the labor movement, new member organizing must be paired with political activity and advocacy for stronger public policies to protect workers.  The Stitches workers’ win comes on the heels of a major victory for workers in Chicago’s city council: the passage of anti-wage theft legislation that makes it possible for the city of Chicago to revoke business licenses of businesses found guilty of wage theft. Arise worked with Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th ward), the bill’s sponsor, to draft the bill.

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by Adam Kader

As a result of months of collaboration between Arise Chicago and Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th ward), last Thursday the City of Chicago passed an ordinance stating that, should an employer be found guilty of wage theft, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection could revoke the owner’s business license.

The victory garnered significant media attention in the English and Spanish-speaking media.

Ald. Pawar“When I attended Arise Chicago’s launch event for the car wash campaign, where I learned that the average car wash worker has $4,413 stolen each year, nearly a third of their income, I felt an urgency to begin work on this ordinance,” Pawar stated.

Arise Chicago worked with Pawar to develop the concept, and with the mayor’s office to craft the language of the ordinance, which was then given a two-day hearing in the city’s Licensing Committee and moved to the entire City Council for a vote. The ordinance passed unanimously.

When Alderman Pawar spoke at the City Council meeting, he commented, “This will be a good ordinance for workers and the ethical business owners of Chicago…I commend the great work and leadership of Arise Chicago in leading the fight for this ordinance.”

The legislation is significant because it makes Chicago the second and largest city in the nation to enact such a policy. The National Employment Law Project’s publication on wage theft legislation identifies license revocation policies as a “top pick” for best practices.

This ordinance has a wide-ranging impact, effectively covering all workers who are employed by a business that needs a license to operate. But those who stand to gain the most are those workers who are the most marginalized: immigrant workers and workers of color, working in non-union and low-wage industries. Indeed, in its landmark report, the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development estimates that $7.3 million is stolen in workers’ wages in a single week in Cook County. The report also finds that immigrants are 1.5 times more likely than native-born workers to have their wages stolen, and African Americans are 27 times more likely to have their wages stolen than their white counterparts.

LilianaArise Chicago Worker Center member Liliana Baca’s story dramatizes how egregious wage theft can be: “I worked for over 60 hours a week for five years at a grocery store. And I never received overtime pay. This is my wage theft story. But I’m not the only one who has a story. So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.” Arise Chicago’s Worker Center has worked for years with over 3,000 workers like Liliana (above)  recover more than $5 million in stolen wages and owed compensation.

When workers’ wages are stolen, it affects their family and community life. As Alderman Pawar reflects in his ward newsletter, “These stolen wages are not going to pay down consumer debt, not going to purchase consumer goods nor are put to work in our economy through sales and income taxes. When employers steal from their employees, everybody loses.”

Wage theft hurts ethical businesses, too, by creating unfair competition for employers who want to follow the law but find themselves in a market flooded with competitors able to undercut them by stealing workers’ wages. In the Chicago car wash industry, for example, extreme wage theft is the norm, making it nearly impossible for ethical businesses to compete.

Ethical businessman David Launius, owner of We’ll Clean Car Wash, says “the human element of business is the most important.” Writing in support of the ordinance in a letter submitted to the Licensing Committee, Launius stated, “We care about the well-being of our staff. We are proud to partner with Arise Chicago to ensure that our workers are the best treated in the industry.”

Fellow Chicago worker centers, including Centro de Trabajadores Unidos/Immigrant Workers’ Project, Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, Latino Union, and Restaurant Opportunities Center brought organizers and worker members to testify in the Committee hearing in support of the ordinance.

The ordinance’s passage is a historic victory for workers because it signals that the City of Chicago will not tolerate wage theft. Perhaps Arise Chicago Worker Center member Maria Garcia best sums this up when she states, “Now the bosses are going to know that the workers have rights, too.”

–Adam is the Worker Center Program Director at Arise Chicago

Media HighlightsSalonThe Guardian

In These Times

Telemundo

click photo at right for video clip

Think Progress

Chicago Reporter

La Raza 

Portside

Clasp                               

DNAinfo.com

Progress IL                       

Lincoln Square Patch

47th Ward Newsletter

Arise Chicago YouTube video of press conference

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As a result of the months of collaboration between Arise Chicago and Alderman Pawar (47th ward), on Thursday, January 17th, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance stating that, should a business owner be found guilty of wage theft, the owner’s business license could be revoked. This makes Chicago the largest city in the country with anti-wage theft legislation. The ordinance, endorsed by the National Employment Law Project as one of the strongest actions a municipality can take to combat wage theft, will impact hundreds of thousands low-wage workers and their families in Chicago.

Ald. Pawar

“This ordinance helps change the conversation about good business. To be pro-business also includes caring about how employees are treated,” reflected Alderman Pawar (right).   “I think this marks an important step in leveling the playing field for the many ethical business owners in our city.”

Arise Chicago Worker Center member Liliana Baca (below) said, “I worked for over 55 hours a week for five years at a grocery store.  And I never received overtime pay. This is my wage theft story.  But I’m not the only one who has a story.  So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.”

Liliana

The ordinance gives desperately-needed tools to the city of Chicago to ensure employers obey the law.

Follow the latest on the new anti-wage theft ordinance by joining Arise Chicago on Facebook and Twitter.

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By: Shelly Ruzicka

On Saturday, June 2nd, Noemi Hernández led a group of over 30 community supporters to confront her former employer at Gislex Bridal, located in the Little Village Discount Mall.  Noemi is a member of the Arise Chicago Worker Center who first came to the center with concerns about working conditions at the bridal shop.  After talking with Worker Center organizers, they discovered she was owed over $9,700 in wages from her 10 months working at Gislex.  Because the store’s owner pays its workers $55-60 per day for a ten hour shift, 5 days a week, Noemi was earning about $6 per hour, far below the Illinois $8.25 minimum wage, and no overtime.  After Noemi presented a letter from Arise expressing concern about the wages and working conditions at Gislex, the employer fired her.  The owner, Maribel Flores, has refused to meet and has not returned phone calls from Arise, prompting Noemi and the Worker Center to hold a more creative action to get the employer’s attention.

Leading a mock bridal party decked out in veils, dresses, ties, corsages, buttoners, and flower bouquets, Noemi carried a hand-made sign that asked customers not to support a business that abuses its workers. One supporter carried an over-sized price tag for the $9,700 owed to Noemi.  Another had a giant receipt for Gislex with line items for the unpaid minimum wage, overtime, and last week of wages.

         

The group entered the Discount Mall to present a letter, the price tag, and receipt to the shop owner.  A Gislex worker told the crowd that the owner knew they were there and was leaving.  This marked the second time owner Maribel Flores had run away from Noemi and Arise when they tried to meet with her.  The group then paraded through the Discount Mall handing out flyers to curious customers and chanting, “Queremos justicia en La Villita!” or “we want justice in Little Village!”  Then Noemi and the  “bridal party” led a picket outside chanting “Follow your vow, pay Noemi now!” and “What do we want? The minimum wage!  When do we want it? Now!” all the while also engaging mall customers.

When the group processed back across the street to where they started, Arise organizers and Noemi debriefed with supporters.  Noemi said that while she first felt nervous approaching her former workplace, the large group of supporters energized her.  One of her friends who attended the action was extremely passionate, saying, “It’s so important we did this to show all the other workers, especially Latinos, that they can stand up.  It’s wrong that this is happening, but even worse that it’s in our own Latino community, right on 26th Street.”

While the owner was not present to accept the demand letter or to speak with her former worker, Noemi said she felt good about the action.   When asked if they thought the owner still heard the group’s message demanding justice, everyone unanimously replied with a resounding “yes!”  Each person also expressed commitment to support Noemi at additional actions if needed.

To stay up to date on Noemi’s campaign for justice at Gislex, subscribe to Dignity at Work and to Arise Chicago’s e-news/action alert list at www.arisechicago.org.

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-Shelly is the Director of Operations at Arise Chicago

-Photos by Shelly Ruzicka.  More photos on Arise Chicago’s Facebook album.

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