News Economic Justice

Oregon Labor Advocates Push Wage Protections

Nicole Knight Shine

Democratic Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday unveiled a plan to boost the state minimum wage from $9.25 to $13.50. Separately, activists said they are circulating a proposed ballot measure to raise Oregon’s minimum wage should the governor's effort fail.

Labor issues have taken center stage in Oregon, as state lawmakers contemplate a bevy of new wage protections amid a statewide push to raise the minimum pay rate.

Gov. Kate Brown (D) on Thursday unveiled a plan to boost the state minimum wage from $9.25 to $13.50, and lift Portland’s to $15.52 in 2022.

“The costs of essentials such as food, child care, and rent are rising so fast that wages can’t keep up,” Brown said in a statement. “Many Oregonians working full-time can’t make ends meet, and that’s not right.”

Ahead of the legislative session that begins next month, the Senate Workforce and General Government Committee also discussed at a capitol meeting Wednesday a slate of worker-friendly proposals that include giving employees better access to detailed payroll records, making the failure to pay prevailing wages on publicly funded jobs a felony, and requiring companies with a pattern of wage abuse to put up a bond to ensure the timely payment of earnings.

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Michael Dale, executive director of the labor-advocacy group Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, said the proposals, a roster of some of the least controversial provisions that labor leaders have pushed for in the past, will be introduced in February when the Democrat-led legislature returns for a short session.

“It basically moves the ball a little farther down the field,” Dale said of the initiatives in a phone interview Thursday with Rewire. “Any way we can help enforce workers’ rights will be helpful.”

Wage theft costs Oregon workers millions in lost earnings. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries recently announced settlements recovering $2.7 million in unpaid wages for construction workers on state-funded projects, as Public News Service reported.

“Wage theft is a huge problem, a complex problem, and it’s not going to be solved by one silver bullet solution,” Dale said.

He said the draft legislation also calls for excess money in the state’s Wage Security Fund be spent to enforce existing wage laws, rather than being funneled into the state General Fund.

Separately, activists said they are circulating a proposed ballot measure to raise Oregon’s minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by 2018 should the governor’s effort fail.

Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward, part of a coalition backing the wage hike, told the Register-Guard, “We fully intend to take this fight to the ballot and are clearly preparing to do so. The bottom line is that Oregon must raise the minimum wage in 2016.”

An Oregonian working full-time for the current state minimum of $9.25 an hour earns just $19,240 a year, leaving them unable to afford basic necessities, such as shelter, food, and transportation, advocates say.

A handful a bills introduced in 2015 to raise the minimum wage stalled in committee.

Business interests say wage hikes hurt profits and cut hiring, but the advocacy group Our Oregon points to research that suggests small businesses benefit from cost savings, which come from reductions in employee turnover and absenteeism, as well as improved worker performance.

Oregon once enjoyed the second-highest minimum wage of any state, according to the Lund Report, but now trails Massachusetts and California, where the state minimum is $10 an hour. A California ballot initiative to hike the state minimum to $15 per hour is likely to go to voters on the November ballot, as Rewire reported.

News Economic Justice

Wage Theft Could Cost $32 Million Weekly for Pennsylvania’s Low-Wage Workers

Michelle D. Anderson

Advocates say that government oversight is weak, and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent refusal to consider a case involving several thousand Walmart employees brought attention to what employment advocates in Pennsylvania call a hidden crisis: wage theft.

Legal aid agencies and advocacy organizations such as the Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project use the term to describe employers’ refusal to pay wages due their workers.

“Shortchanged: How Wage Theft Harms Pennsylvania’s Workers And Economy,” a study released by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, revealed that cooks, dishwashers, and food preparers, along with stock/office clerks and retail salespeople, were among the largest low-wage worker groups experiencing weekly minimum wage violations.

Employers commit wage theft by paying a daily rate that does not meet Pennsylvania’s $7.25 hourly minimum wage requirements, misclassifying people who work as independent contractors, paying in cash, failing to keep adequate records, and taking money out of paychecks to account for uniforms, supplies, and other products necessary to perform the job.

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Terry L. Fromson, managing attorney at the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal center, told Rewire that the practice compromises women’s economic security in Pennsylvania, where women make up about two-thirds of people who work for minimum wage, and where the minimum wage is the lowest allowed by federal law.

“Factor in losing 15 percent of a would-be paycheck to wage theft, and a family led by a primary or sole breadwinning mother sinks further into poverty,” Fromson said.

In the Walmart case, first decided by a Philadelphia jury in October 2006, 186,000 current and former employees from the retailer’s Pennsylvania stores were awarded $187 million in a class action suit for unpaid wages that were withheld between March 1998 and April 2006.

The workers’ counsel, Donovan Litigation Group, said the employees had been owed $140 million of the $187 million and will now split $224 million due to interest, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Walmart had appealed the decision in 2006, taking the case to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, who affirmed the jury verdict in 2014. U.S. Supreme Court justices on April 4 decided to not take up the case and to support the state’s high court decision.

In the years since Walmart employees first took action, workers and legal aid agencies across the United States, including in Pennsylvania, have brought many more wage theft cases.

Last year, for example, more than three dozen people who work for low wages at the Denver-area Carniceria y Verduleria Guadalajara grocery store won $305,000 in back wages and penalties in a U.S. District Court ruling using federal and state “wage theft” laws.

Papa John’s franchisees in New York were found guilty of wage theft last year and ordered to pay back more than $500,000 to settle claims that they swindled employees out of earned income.

There remains, however, little information as to how prevalent wage theft has become across the country, advocates for low-wage workers told Rewire. The Sheller Center last year sought to fill the void in wage theft data in Pennsylvania.

The study, which used the state’s right-to-know law to obtain data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) and relied upon extrapolations rather than original data, found that the state’s people who work for low wages, on average, lose about 15 percent of the their earnings to wage theft.

The study suggested that nearly 400,000 people who work in Pennsylvania experience a minimum wage violation and more than 300,000 experience an overtime violation every workweek. The weekly loss amounts to an estimated $19-32 million in wages, according to the “Shortchanged” authors.

The study revealed that the DLI, the state agency responsible for handling wage theft matters, was unable to collect wages in more than half of the complaints filed by people who work.

In fact, despite closing 5,000 cases annually, the DLI collects wages in about 2,000 of those incidents, according to the Temple University study.

The U.S. Department of Labor in a study released last year acknowledged the prevalence of wage theft among wage and salary workers in California and New York.

The report concluded that more than 300,000 people who work in those states were victims of wage theft. Many of those affected, the federal study revealed, work in service-based positions in the restaurant and hotel industries and were more likely to be women, people of color, and undocumented people.

Undocumented residents in New York, for example, were 3.1 times more likely to experience wage theft.

A local report released by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha in Minneapolis found that nearly half of low-wage workers in the Twin Cities have experienced wage theft.

Nadia Hewka, senior attorney at Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia-based legal aid outlet, said many businesses exploit undocumented workers’ vulnerabilities.

“Employers cut corners—some of them will choose to hire immigrant workers because they think they won’t complain,” Hewka told Rewire.

At Community Legal Services, Hewka said many people who work don’t know they are entitled to overtime and often seek to recover wages after they haven’t been paid for extended periods of time.

“That often happens with immigrant workers who are not familiar with laws in the U.S.,” said Hewka, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Workers Rights Coalition.

The “Shortchanged” authors noted that undocumented workers fear their supervisors will call immigration authorities, while immigrants with employment visas are often afraid they may lose visa privileges if they speak up.

Identifying Wage Theft

The Temple University study, which excluded low-wage employees in more rural settings, like farm, forestry, and fishing workers, outlined the many ways employers get away with wage theft.

The report relied upon a landmark investigation released in 2009 called “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” which surveyed low-wage workers in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles.

The “Broken Laws” study estimated about 90 percent of home health-care workers were victims of off-the-clock violations.

Philadelphia resident Natasha, whose last name was withheld by the “Shortchanged” authors, was a victim of wage theft while working as a home health-care worker.

Her employer, who often avoided workers and created barriers to keep employees from engaging each other about their paychecks, failed to compensate Natasha for travel time between client homes and even missed paycheck due dates.

The mother of four, who made $9.50 per hour and witnessed her boss call the police on coworkers who complained about wage theft, was ultimately fired after becoming ill despite her stellar attendance and documented excuse for missing work.

“I was so frustrated and I wanted to break down and cry because I couldn’t spend another week not being able to feed my children, having to choose between bread, eggs or milk,” she said, according to the study. “It was the worst experience of my life.”

Advocates for people who work low-wage jobs contend that wage theft also hurts the state’s economy, because money that would otherwise be spent in the economy is stolen from people who work, while businesses evade taxes that could be used to fund schools and road projects.

Law-abiding businesses may struggle to compete with enterprises that steal wages, advocates said.

The U.S. Department of Labor study noted that the burden of wage theft ultimately shifts from the private sector to the government because people who work for low wages will seek public assistance if their pay is insufficient.

People who work for low wages and their allies have looked to key policy changes to address wage theft, though it’s proven difficult because of resistance in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, Hewka said.

Some measures proposed during the 2015-2016 legislative session, like HB 250, which sought to raise the penalty for wage theft and for retaliating against an employee for reporting said theft, get stuck in committees and die there, she said.

A resolution to discharge the house’s labor and industry committee from further consideration of HB 250 was presented in October 2015.

Legislators in other states have proposed measures aimed at addressing wage theft. Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin last year proposed legislation that would allow the state’s Department of Workforce Development to charge interest on unpaid wages and levy fines up to $1,000 per violation against employers who break state wage theft laws.

Hewka added that government oversight, overall, is weak and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced, she said. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators, she said.

In Pennsylvania, the Minimum Wage Act and the Wage Payment and Collection Law are the protections low-wage workers can rely on to reclaim stolen wages.

The Wage Payment and Collection Law limits penalties to the higher of $500 or 25 percent of wages owed, and includes criminal fines limited to $300.

The state’s minimum wage law, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any damages to people who work low-wage jobs, unlike federal law.

“Shortchanged” authors have recommended harsher penalties for employers, including business license revocation and allowing people who work to place a hold on employer’s property until they receive unpaid wages.

Other solutions encourage state policymakers to collaborate with community groups to target investigations and to create a process for workers to submit anonymous or confidential complaints.

The state has enjoyed some successes in battling systemic wage theft against people who work.

Philadelphia City Councilman William “Bill” Greenlee sponsored a bill that will create a wage-theft watchdog in the city’s Managing Director’s Office.

The bill, which was unanimously approved by the council in November, requires a wage-theft coordinator to respond to worker complaints and find victims who may lack education about their rights.

The coordinator will be responsible for looking at thefts of anywhere between $100 and $10,000, and can revoke business licenses and impose a city fine of $2,000 per incident.

Hewka, who worked with Greenlee on the measure, said the city should be prepared to handle complaints in July.

The measure, she said, will offer relief to low-income citizens who cannot afford a private lawyer and legal aid groups who can only provided a limited amount of free services.

Commentary Human Rights

California’s Minimum Wage Increase Is Not Enough for the Working Poor

Susy Chávez Herrera

Gov. Jerry Brown just signed a minimum wage increase into law. But if we really care about those living in poverty many of whom are Latinos and their children—the next step must be repealing the state’s "family cap" welfare reform that penalizes the poor for having children.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, giving a much-needed boost to poor working families across the state. The Fight for 15 movement has been driven by a diverse coalition that includes unions, workers’ rights advocates, and poverty advocates, as well as workers themselves.

The new minimum wage law is a glimmer of hope for many of the working poor upon whom the state depends. But their livelihoods have been stunted during the state’s decades-long push for welfare reform. The fight against poverty must include the repeal of draconian laws that punish the poor.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles during the ’80s and ’90s, my family was part of the working poor. Although I lived a good chunk of my childhood “near poverty”—but not “in” it, according to conventional definitions—poverty definitely came knocking on my family’s door more than once.

Things were tight financially, though my father worked a full-time job at a condiment factory. He returned home five days a week with the smell of vinegar seeping from every pore of his body, the fumes spilling out of our old Nissan. On the weekends, he would make every attempt to beat down the smell by cleaning, washing, and scrubbing anything that had come into contact with him.

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The small amount of money my mother made taking care of other people’s children while trying to care for her own five children would not keep our family afloat. With two working parents, my family still depended on the weekly food handouts at our local church.

As the person who managed our household, my mother struggled to make ends meet. She finally lost that struggle the day my father came home with a frozen turkey in hand—his Thanksgiving bonus—and the news he had been laid off. Although the layoff was supposed to be temporary, there were no guarantees.

As an adult looking back, I am angered by the fact that poor children, parents, and women of color continue to exist on society’s margins with little hope of finding a respite. Today, more than two million children in California, including almost 70 percent who are Latino, live in poverty. This is exacerbated by the state’s socially conservative stance on welfare reform—a stance that’s in conflict with the state’s new minimum wage law.

For the last three years, California lawmakers, including Gov. Brown, have had the chance to help poor children by repealing the state’s Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule, the family cap program introduced and signed into law by former Gov. Pete Wilson (R). Latino and Black children bear the brunt of this policy, which denies additional funds for newborn children whose parents are already receiving benefits through CalWORKs, California’s welfare-to-work program.

Family caps essentially punish poor people for their fertility. In California, the MFG continues the state’s legacy of eugenics and its efforts to control poor women’s bodies. The policy has only helped push poor parents of color and their children into deeper poverty. Additionally, women who challenge the MFG are required to prove their pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or that one of the state’s listed pre-approved birth control methods failed. In California, as in many parts of the country, being a poor woman means the state will do its best to interfere with your reproductive decisions and society will shame you.

According to California Department of Social Services data, 57 to 60 percent of all households affected by the MFG are Latino households. Another 17 to 24 percent of affected households are Black. Perhaps not surprisingly, 25 to 33 percent of children affected by the grant live in Los Angeles County, with its high rate of child poverty. Another 31 to 39 percent live in the “Farm Belt” Central Valley.

As the oldest child, I understood the effects of poverty on a family at an early age. After my father was laid off, my mother was forced to seek government aid. It was a decision neither of my parents took lightly. My father is a proud immigrant and my mother a Mexican-American woman who grew up on the border. For my parents, the thought of taking government money to feed their children was filled with failure and despair.

I remember feeling the shame on my mother’s face pierce my skin like a needle as she stepped up to the cash register to pay for our weekly groceries with food stamps. The humiliation rushed through my veins as I helped her carry bags of produce, diapers, and milk home. Policies like the MFG exacerbate the shame society heaps upon the working poor.

No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has needed a little help sometime in their lives. The best way to help hardworking and struggling California families is to repeal a classist, sexist, and racist policy whose effects are multi-generational and detrimental to hundreds of thousands of children. After the minimum wage increase, repealing the MFG will move California forward in the fight against poverty.