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Fe y Justicia Worker Center

Highlighting wages in the Mayor’s race

From the inbox:

Coalition Calls on Next Mayor to Raise Minimum Wage for Publicly Funded Projects

Today, a coalition of community and labor organizations staged a tour of of sites that received tax dollars to tell the story of how the city subsidizes the creation of poverty jobs.

“Of the City of Houston’s 35 economic development tax-incentive deals with developers between 2004 – 2014, only 7 had any job promises,” said Feldon Bonner, a member of the Texas Organizing Project at the press conference that kicked off the tour. “None of the deals included language about the quality of the promised jobs, and only one has provided reports to the City on its job creation deliverables. This is unacceptable.”

The tour started at the Westin Downtown, formerly known as the Inn at the Ballpark, for which Landry’s received $2 million dollars in tax giveaways, and despite failing to provide the 125 jobs promised, the city council voted to allow Landry’s to keep the incentives.

“These tax deals are not going to mom and pop businesses. They are not going to small, women-owned, minority owned or disadvantaged businesses,” said Pastor David Madison, a TOP leader. “Tillman Fertitta, CEO, chairman and owner of Landry’s has a net worth of $2.3 billion. Yet Landry’s is one of the region’s largest poverty job creators paying its more than 10,000 service and restaurant workers in the Houston area low wages.”

The next stop was at Ainbinder Heights, a development anchored by Walmart, and includes a McDonald’s and Taco Cabana. The city awarded Ainbinder $6 million in tax breaks for property improvements. The agreement between the city and Ainbinder spans 48 pages, yet the city failed to negotiate any specific commitments for the number and quality of jobs or any other meaningful community benefits.

“Let’s not forget that Walmart is the largest corporation in the world! And the Walton family is the richest family in America with a net worth of $149 billion dollars. Do you think they need our tax incentives?,” Florence Coleman, a TOP leader, asked the community members present. “Do they deserve our tax incentives? The average Walmart associate makes just $8.81 per hour. Nationally, taxpayers are already footing a $6.2 billion bill in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing for Walmart employees who can’t provide for their families because of the low wages Walmart pays them.”

The final stop was at the Astrodome, a project that will probably receive tax dollars. County Judge Ed Emmett has traveled around the world to put together a plan for its reconstruction that includes water park, theater & trails. But there is no plan to assure that the jobs created by this project pay well and have benefits.

“The Astrodome was built by union workers back in the early 1960s, and we’re proud to have contributed to it,” said Paul Puente of the Building Trades Union. “And our elected officials have the obligation to leverage our public dollars effectively so projects like the Astrodome redevelopment provide good jobs that pay at least $15 dollars per hour or prevailing wage, whichever is higher. Jobs that provide training and benefits. And to make sure African American and Latino families in struggling neighborhoods have access to these jobs by including local hire requirements and second chance provisions.”

The coalition staged the tour today to so that Houston’s next mayor makes higher wages a priority.

“We are here today to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated with publicly funded development projects like the ones we visited earlier today,” Puente added. “Our local economy cannot afford one more poverty wage job. Our communities cannot accept one more poverty-wage job.”

The following organizations participated in today’s tour: Texas Organizing Project, SEIU Texas, AFL-CIO, Fe y Justicia Worker Center and Working America. Pictures can be downloaded from here: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0Bx7Fk8Qnalp0MTdtRXBMa2hyN0U&usp=sharing

That came out the same day as this story about Houston not being the affordable city we are used to it being. High housing costs are a big factor in that, but so are low average wages. Attacking that problem can have an effect on the bottom line as well. There’s only so much a Mayor can do directly about this – we already have an executive order in place establishing a higher minimum wage for companies that do business with the city, thanks to Mayor Parker – but talking about the issue and making it a point in negotiations over real estate deals like the ones cited above are two of them. I’m glad to see this coalition call attention to it.

First wage theft complaints filed in Houston

I hope these workers get the justice they seek.

For three years Erik Lopez and his three brothers say they each often worked 80-hour weeks, building highway ramps and trash landfills for city projects.

Yet they say their employer refused to pay them overtime. Nor did the company provide tax forms, such as a W-2, instead giving them cash or personal checks so the brothers couldn’t pay their taxes – and stayed off the company’s books.

“(My boss) would tell me it didn’t really suit him to pay me overtime,” said Lopez, 30, a native of Guerrero state in Mexico, who came to Houston 14 years ago seeking work. “I worked all the time, but we struggled paying our bills.”

It was not until he heard about Houston’s wage theft ordinance, passed last November, that he realized he had some recourse. With the assistance of the nonprofit Faith and Justice Worker Center, Lopez and 12 others on Tuesday became the first to file a complaint under that law, saying they’re collectively owed more than $200,000 in unpaid wages for work performed for sub-contractors on city-funded sites.

[…]

Yet workers most affected by rogue employers are often those too afraid to complain. Jose Santa Cruz, a 33-year-old father of two from Michoacán, Mexico, said his employer didn’t provide safety equipment and threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if his workers reported violations.

Finally, when the boss said he might stick employees with the bill for broken heavy machinery, Santa Cruz just didn’t come back.

Now he said his employer owes him more than $900 in wages and he’s yet to find steady work. “I’m counting on some friends to pay the bills,” he said.

About half of all construction workers in Texas are foreign-born, many of them lacking work authorization, according to a 2013 survey led by the Workers Defense Project.

Researchers found more than 20 percent of Texas workers say they were denied payment for their construction work and 50 percent reported not being paid overtime.

See here, here, and here for the background. The city ordinance isn’t about enforcement per se, it’s about barring firms that have had wage theft complaints enforced against them from doing business with the city. The workers themselves are generally left to pursue the complaints. What isn’t discussed is what the penalties are for committing wage theft. These are usually treated as civil offenses, and as Catherine Rampell documents, the problems are widespread and involve much bigger players than construction firms.

In the past few weeks, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman extracted settlements from dozens of McDonald’s and Domino’s locations around the state for off-the-clock work. Last month, workers in California, Michigan and New York filed class-action lawsuits against McDonald’s alleging multiple charges of wage theft. These suits have upped the ante by implicating the McDonald’s corporation, not just individual franchisees, in bad behavior. The plaintiffs allege that McDonald’s corporate office exerts so much control over franchisees — including by monitoring their hourly labor costs through a corporate computer system — that it had to have known what was going on.

“It doesn’t take a company dictating the specific method for violating the law in order to obtain those violations,” Michael Rubin, an attorney with Altshuler Berzon LLP who filed the California suits, told me. “If you keep coming with this directive that labor costs must be lowered, there are only a finite number of ways that can be done, most of which are unlawful. The lawful ways get exhausted quickly.” (McDonald’s said in a statement that it is “undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the allegations.”)

These cases aside, wage theft mostly goes unreported. Workers who do report the stolen wages to authorities — lately, at the urging of national labor campaigns such as Good Jobs Nation — can wait months before an investigation is resolved, even though they probably need the missing money to pay their next electricity bill. (This has been the case with fast-food workers employed by government contractors at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, who filed a wage-theft complaint with the Labor Department last summer.) The consequences for wage theft are rare, small and not particularly deterring. Even when government investigators pursue these complaints, for example, criminal charges are rarely filed.

Harsher penalties, including prison time, should be on the table more often when willful wrongdoing is proved. Thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s home can go to jail; the same should be true for thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s paycheck.

Can you even imagine our Attorney General filing lawsuits and pursuing these complaints against corporations? I know, right? Greg Abbott would be in court arguing that the workers have no right to sue and that the companies are immune to such lawsuits in Texas. Such amusing thoughts aside, it’s a good question why complaints like these aren’t generally punished with jail time. I mean, if someone reached into your bank account and took a week’s pay from you, you’d call that theft and would consider jail time to be a possibility for the thief. How is this any different? It’s a disgrace that this happens to anyone. As a society, we should not tolerate it and we should take all reasonable steps to prevent and punish it.

Council passes wage theft ordinance

Well done.

Houston City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt an ordinance aimed at deterring companies from stealing workers’ wages and ensuring the city does not hire firms that do, though supporters acknowledged the measure’s limited reach.

The seemingly easy vote masked months of lobbying and negotiations among Mayor Annise Parker’s administration, council members, workers rights groups and business organizations. The item was pulled from last week’s agenda for some final tweaks in talks with lobbyists for builders, contractors, restaurateurs, building owners and hotel operators.

[…]

Laura Perez-Boston, director of the nonprofit Faith and Justice Worker Center, flooded the chamber with supporters each time the item came up, citing statistics: 100 daily wage theft complaints in the Houston area; $750 million in local wages lost annually to the practice.

“It’s certainly not everything we would want, but I do think it is a substantial step in the right direction,” she said. “And although you may see there aren’t a lot of main contractors that are found guilty of wage theft, there are a lot of subcontractors.”

Joshua Sanders, a spokesman for the trade groups, said the law strikes a balance in that it has teeth but avoids duplicating existing processes. He rejected the idea that the draft had been hollowed out via negotiations.

“What they did with this ordinance was to say, ‘We’re one of the largest employers in Houston, we’ve got a policy now that allows us to scrutinize and penalize and refuse to do business with individuals who’ve been convicted of wage theft,’ ” Sanders said. “They’re taking this position as an employer and they’re setting a standard and an example.”

See here, here, and here for the background. As Texpatriate noted, CM Helena Brown was absent, so don’t read too much into the fact that it passed unanimously. There’s certainly room for improvement in this ordinance, since it only affects a firm that has been convicted of wage theft and has exhausted all its appeals, but just having this ordinance is a big step forward. I would like to see the matter revisited before the end of Mayor Parker’s next term to ensure that the law has had the intended effect and to strengthen it if needed. But the first step is always the hardest, and getting this on the books is a big deal. Kudos all around. PDiddie has more.

Council to consider wage theft ordinance

Good.

The Houston City Council may step up its efforts to combat wage theft, sanctioning companies that deny workers pay to which they are entitled and monitoring firms accused of doing so, regardless of whether they do business with the city.

City Attorney David Feldman laid out a proposed ordinance to a City Council committee on Tuesday, receiving a generally positive reaction from council members and worker advocates, who flooded the chamber in yellow or teal T-shirts, representing the Fe y Justicia Worker Center and Texas Organizing Project.

Workers who believe they have been improperly denied pay can file civil complaints with the Texas Workforce Commission or in a justice of the peace court, or pursue criminal complaints with police or prosecutors. Feldman said most workers who file complaints choose the state agency.

The city’s best chance to help, Feldman said, is to create a database of companies found guilty of wage theft and to keep a watch list of firms accused of the practice, in the hopes of using its leverage as a source of contracts, permits and licenses as a deterrent.

“Obviously, we do have a large amount of buying power, purchasing power, a large number of contracts, and, obviously, we want to make sure the city of Houston says, ‘We’re not going to be doing business with somebody that’s found to be guilty of this type of activity,'” Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.

Existing city rules state that firms who commit wage theft can be barred from city work, but do not specify how the city would identify offending companies, Feldman said.

Stace was on this earlier and then again afterward. This is a very basic premise: People who do work deserve to get paid for it, and they deserve to get paid what they were promised, without delays or extra conditions or any other BS. Denying someone the pay they were promised is wrong and should carry consequences. This has been a huge national problem lately, and it’s a disgrace. What was especially encouraging about this proposal was the overwhelming agreement that this ordinance would do good. It’s a shame that it’s needed, but it will be good to have it. Contact your Council member and let him or her know that you support this, too.