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.
“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.
Arise 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
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Arise Chicago YouTube video of press conference