It has been called “the crime wave no one talks about.” FRESC: Good Jobs, Strong Communities is changing that—getting Coloradoans talking about, and doing something about, the wage theft crime wave.
Wage theft occurs when an employee does not receive some or all of they pay owed them. Unscrupulous employers pay below minimum wage, pocket tips meant for their employees, neglect to pay time and a half for overtime, and force workers to work off the clock. All of these things are illegal, but weak enforcement has often left workers with few means of recovering the money owed to them.
Not surprisingly, wage theft hits low wage workers the hardest. A 2009 study found that an incredible 76 percent of low wage workers in our nation's largest cities claimed they had been underpaid or not paid at all. Wage theft also hurts businesses that play by the rules; ethical businesses compete with those that steal from their workers. Wage theft leads to lost tax revenue, hurting the public services we all rely on.
Wage theft is a crisis across the nation. That’s why FRESC and its Interfaith Worker Justice Committee are leading the effort to end wage theft in Colorado.
For three years, FRESC’s Religious Outreach Organizer and Interfaith Worker Justice leader, Rev. Daniel Klawitter, has led a Wage Theft Task Force in Denver. The Task Force coordinates the enforcement of existing laws against wage theft. Representatives from state and federal labor departments, employment law attorneys, community advocates, faith leaders and worker allies come together to help victims of wage theft. The Task Force, through increasing trust and communication between these diverse stakeholders, has led to more worker victims receiving justice.
FRESC and Interfaith Worker Justice decided that improved enforcement of existing laws weren’t enough. Despite the improvements the Task Force had brought about, Colorado’s system for workers to recover stolen wages was inadequate. In fact, it wasn’t much of a system.
The state department of labor tasked with resolving wage theft cases lacks resources (only a few staff to handle over 5000 wage theft calls a year) and it lacks the power to force employers to pay up when found guilty. Few private practice lawyers take on clients with wage theft cases because the legal system is stacked against them. Often workers are forced to decide whether to navigate the small claims court system on their own, or give up.
FRESC launched the campaign to make the system work for workers publically on Labor Day 2012 when wage theft was the focus of FRESC’s Interfaith Worker Justice “Labor In the Pulpits” program:
Drawing on the expertise of Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice and the National Employment Law Project, FRESC and its allied attorneys drafted a bill that State Representative Jonathan Singer introduced last month.
FRESC is hopeful that due to momentum from recent wage theft legislative victories in other states and cities, the time is right for Colorado to move forward as well. In 2011, Illinois passed a law to improve its own wage theft enforcement system. One critical piece of this landmark legislation was a fee structure that allows the Illinois Department of Labor to retain some of the wages and penalties it recoups in order to fund further investigation and enforcement. Already this provision has supplied $58,000 for the department, almost enough to hire an additional full time employee. Thanks to FRESC, Colorado is poised to follow Illinois's lead, by passing a wage theft law that funds investigation, better enforcement and tracking, and makes it easier for workers to claim the money they have earned to support their families.
FRESC’s coalition of faith leaders, pro-worker attorneys, day laborers, labor unions, and business people are pushing hard for an end to this crime wave. Colorado’s workers and businesses need this change.