For two years running Houston has added more millionaires to its population than any other city in the United States. Near-millionaires are enjoying some nice upward mobility, especially those involved in the oil and gas industry.
Low-wage workers, on the other hand, aren’t faring too well in the city. In fact, a recent report from Houston Interfaith Worker Justice (HIWJ) estimates that low-wage workers lose $753.2 million annually due to wage theft. Wage theft can occur in many ways, including: workers being denied the minimum wage or overtime pay; stolen tips; illegal deductions from paychecks; people being forced to work off the clock; or workers getting misclassified as independent contractors so they aren’t entitled to overtime or benefits.
“We’re not talking about a worker here or a worker there, it’s something that has a lot of ripple effects,” says José Eduardo Sanchez, campaign organizer with HIWJ. “It impacts families, communities and local economies.”
Although there are laws on the books against wage theft, there are problems with understaffing, enforcement, and jurisdiction disputes in institutions like the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, the Texas Workforce Commission, and the courts.
HIWJ—a nonprofit organization helping low-wage workers learn about their workplace rights and organizing to improve working conditions—recently took decisive action. The group drafted an ordinance that would protect workers from retaliation for reporting violations; allow workers who file a complaint to receive a fair hearing; and require employers to pay back not only the stolen wages but also damages, in order to create a real disincentive for repeat offenses. Currently, an employer in Houston only needs to pay the wages owed and then can move on. Why wouldn’t a bad actor simply repeat the behavior and hope to get away with it next time?
The city’s Legal Department initially analyzed the proposal and said that wage theft is addressed by state statute. But Mayor Annise Parker’s office contacted HIWJ to express her interest. HIWJ is now working with her administration on policy proposals that would create a process for a fair hearing and link wage theft violations to the suspension and revocation of city licenses, permits and contracts. Other options to collect additional damages from employers are being explored as well.
Sanchez says the mayor’s action was “surprising” given the initial response from the city.
“But now it’s a matter of holding the politicians accountable and really pushing for enforceable aspects of this legislation,” says Sanchez. “Because there’s an easy way for this to become one of those good policies on paper—nice sentiment, nice words—but not enforceable.”
Part of that accountability involves bringing the issue to the forefront of the public’s attention. As Kim Bobo, executive director of the national IWJ has written, “This is the crime that no one talks about.” Sanchez says the campaign has been very successful in getting a broad range of print media and Spanish-language broadcast media to cover the issue and, more recently, mainstream television is reporting on it too.