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El Paso Becomes Second City to Indict Employer for Wage Theft

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Workers Defense Project staff and supporters perform inside Capitol rotunda on Workers’ Memorial Day to commemorate workers who have died on the job and push bills that would improve conditions for workers in Texas.
Jason Cato, Workers Defense Project
Workers Defense Project staff and supporters perform inside Capitol rotunda on Workers’ Memorial Day to commemorate workers who have died on the job and push bills that would improve conditions for workers in Texas.

On Thursday, for the first time in El Paso history an employer was arrested and indicted for robbing a worker of his wages.

In a state that constantly (and loudly) touts its business-friendly attitude, workers almost never reap the benefits. Construction workers and other low-income workers suffer some of the worst conditions in the country, with some of the worst pay.

In 2011, Austin-based Workers Defense Project successfully lobbied for a bill that amended the state’s wage theft code, authored by Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), that made it harder for employers to get away with stealing workers’ wages. The amendment to the Texas criminal code closed a loophole which allowed employers to get away with paying employees only partially for their work without facing criminal charges. El Paso has become the first city outside of Austin to indict an employer for stealing wages.

“It’s huge because we’re finally treating the stealing of someone’s wages the same way we treat someone stealing from Target or Albertsons or [any] store,” says Jed Untereker, an attorney with Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project who represented the employee. “The consequence for an unscrupulous employer is you’re going to be thrown in jail if you don’t pay your workers what they’re owed.”

In El Paso, workers advocates were able to get the case to the indictment stage because of the El Paso Wage Theft Task Force created in 2011. So far, El Paso is the only city in Texas with an official wage theft task force, which includes the El Paso Police Department, the El Paso Sheriff’s Office, El Paso County and District Attorneys and the Labor Justice Committee.

The Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project is also a member of the task force, as is Sen. Rodriguez, the author of the bill. “While implementation of SB 1024 continues to be a challenge, we are making progress,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “Because non-payment of wages is especially common for low wage workers, it is a major quality-of-life issue. Working families with no margin for temporary hardship cannot afford to miss even one paycheck.”

Despite the tougher criminal code, worker advocates across the state are having a hard time getting local police departments and district attorneys to prosecute wage theft cases. It’s difficult to get police departments to file reports and even harder to get district attorneys to prosecute the cases, which they consider low priority.

In Austin, police officers have worked with Workers Defense to make several arrests and at least three indictments in the past few years, Workplace Justice Coordinator Patricia Zavala says. Some employers were even indicted before the amendment passed. But that was a result of the collaboration between Workers Defense, APD and the county attorney. In other cities, workers have had to resort to the civil courts. But most victims don’t have the resources to go to court, so they simply lose their wages, often losing weeks’ or months’ worth of work.

In the El Paso case, the owner of a local roofing company failed to pay an employee more than $2,000 for replacing a roof. The police talked to the homeowner, who said she had already paid the roofing company owner. When the worker confronted his boss, the man said he “didn’t want to” pay him, according to a press release.

Workers Defense is now hoping to see similar successes in Dallas. Emily Timm of Workers Defense says the group’s newly opened Dallas branch is trying to work with local law enforcement and the county and district attorneys to get wage theft cases prosecuted like in Austin and now El Paso. She says labor groups along the border are doing the same thing. Worker advocacy groups are also lobbying for a variety of bills currently making their way through the Texas Legislature this session. The bills mostly govern wage theft, payroll fraud and workers’ compensation, but so far none have made it to the House or Senate floors for debate.

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.

  • Sammy Carrejo

    That’s funny. I called Senator Rodriguez’ office shortly after he proposed the bill after my employer did not pay me. His office referred me to various offices but none would help me. Why? I was told this law was passed to help certain people in certain fields. What fields you ask? Lettuce fields, onion fields, cotton fields and construction. I was told that due to funding those agencies that take in tax payer money could not help a U.S, Citizen because their funding was meant for immigrants only. Am I making this up? I am more than happy to share the e-mails and the F-Off letter I received from Senator Rodriguez.

    • Andrew Conniff

      Although the agencies have been set up to help those who have the least resources and suffer the most severe abuses the law protects you equally and you have the right to report it directly to the police… what did the police say?

    • SHeadius

      Call the Dept of Labor office in your area. These are federal laws. The employer has no leg to stand on.

      • Ezekial Shake

        no, get an attorney and try for class-action – the labor officials often drag their feet or are compromised

        • SHeadius

          Really bad advice. The DOL does NOT mess around when it comes to employers stealing wages. I know firsthand. 😉

  • Harrison Terran

    The crisis seems to be getting worse all over, and our politicians clearly lack the competence to bring about any sort of recovery. Perhaps politicians and administrators should turn to professional economic crisis specialists, as already happens in the US. For example, the Orlando Bisegna Index, specialists in the economic crisis, apart from measuring the intensity of the economic crisis in many countries, have helped various counties with debt problems, business failures and unemployment, thus improving the economic condition of many families.

  • Not Brandon

    Imprisoning people for debts is a step backward, not a step forward. Now watch the Koch brothers come in and use this principle to upend decades of bankruptcy law and put people in prison when they can’t make ends meet.

    • Andrew Conniff

      those aren’t the same – if you walk into a store and steal $2,000 you would be arrested and prosecuted – that is all this is. When you owe a debt as a consumer you secure the debt with real property (which the owner of the debt can repossess) or the debt is unsecured and you pay a premium usury rate for that privilege – and suffer consequences if you do not pay.

  • Ezekial Shake

    er, try the restaurant industry in every state … illegal diversion of tip income, time-shaving (altering employees’ time-cards), etc.

    • schrodie

      ALWAYS make copies of your time cards before turning them in, or take a picture using your camera in your phone. Keep them in a file at home and double check EVERY pay stub. Check the pay dates AND the hours and pay rate. I had an employer stiff me for my last week of pay when I left, and she presented ‘cooked books’ to investigators when she was confronted after I reported it. Sadly, DOL Wage and Hour bought those cooked books rather than my pay stubs and time card copies, and I never got my pay… but this is an extreme case. Most employers are not that smart.

  • dirkger

    Does this bill also cover nonpayment of taxes when they pay you contract yet the irs and state insist that the work is employee based not contract??