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.”
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