‘Repository of Shame’: Will Texas Start Publicly Identifying Wage Thieves?

Wage theft is a quiet crisis in the Lone Star State. A bill that would publicly expose bad actors may have a chance at the Legislature.

The measure would only affect employers “who’ve just disregarded the process and every opportunity to pay their workers.”
The measure would only affect employers “who’ve just disregarded the process and every opportunity to pay their workers.” Sunny Sone

Wage theft is a quiet crisis in the Lone Star State. A bill that would publicly expose bad actors may have a chance at the Legislature.

The measure would only affect employers “who’ve just disregarded the process and every opportunity to pay their workers.”
The measure would only affect employers “who’ve just disregarded the process and every opportunity to pay their workers.” Sunny Sone

Every year, the Texas Workforce Commission identifies thousands of employers who’ve engaged in wage theft, an offense that can range from outright denial of wages to misclassifying employees as independent contractors. The state labor commission tells errant bosses to make amends — ordering them collectively to pay about $10 million a year in back wages. Yet around half the time, agency records show, employers simply refuse to pay. Often, little happens to those unrepentant pilferers: They aren’t jailed, as a poor shoplifter might be; their assets aren’t frozen and hardly anyone even learns of their misdeeds. In rare cases, a lien is issued. For four legislative sessions now, state Representative Mary González, D-Clint, has sought to chip away at that impunity.

House Bill 48, this session’s version of a measure González first introduced in 2013, is a modest proposal. It would require the workforce commission to create a public, searchable database of employers — including the names of owners and upper managers — who’ve stolen workers’ wages and snubbed the commission’s payment orders. Currently, that information is only available through formal open records requests. The database would also include bosses criminally convicted of wage theft under a pair of rarely used state statutes.

That may sound like an arcane tweak, but González argues the database would help a broad swath of Texans. Job-seekers could use the information to avoid bad employers, nonprofits could target wage thieves to protest, contractors could steer clear of irresponsible subcontractors and lawmakers could deny letters of support for tax credits for offending companies. The fear of bad publicity could also stop employers from stealing in the first place.

State Representative Mary González on the House floor.  Kolten Parker

Earlier this month, González’s bill passed the House on a 95-49 vote, pulling support from a number of mostly moderate Republicans. Some conservatives, González told the Observer, may have been persuaded by the argument that wage theft undermines free competition, because unscrupulous contractors can underbid their peers. “Wage theft hurts employees; it also hurts honest business folks. When you explain it like that, people understand the only ones who win through wage theft are the bad actors,” she said. The database also wouldn’t cost the state any additional money.

The proposal now moves on to the Senate, where it’s been referred to the Natural Resources and Economic Development committee, which endorsed a nearly identical measure in 2017. If the bill clears that first legislative hurdle in the upper chamber, Democrats will then need the support of Dan Patrick and at least seven Republicans to send HB 48 to the governor’s desk. The session ends May 28.

Ana Gonzalez, policy advocate at Workers Defense Project, said most employers have nothing to worry about with HB 48. Only the worst violators would ever end up in the database. After the commission determines that employers owe back wages, they have 30 days to pay their debts. They’d then be given another 180 days to dispute the decision before being included in the new database. The measure would only affect employers “who’ve just disregarded the process and every opportunity to pay their workers,” Gonzalez said.

Last year, the Observer published an investigation revealing that although 11 percent of low-income Texans are effectively paid less than minimum wage, the workforce commission’s budget for wage enforcement remains paltry, and anti-wage theft efforts in Houston and El Paso have fallen flat. In El Paso, HB 48 could help. There, the city requires activists and workers to furnish proof of workforce commission decisions in order for the city to cancel wage thieves’ contracts and permits. Getting that information can be laborious and time-consuming, which HB 48 would fix.

At a hearing on the bill in February, a lobbyist for the Texas Association of Business, a boss’ lobby aligned with moderate Republicans, was the only person to register opposition to the bill. The lobbyist, James Hines, did not provide any public testimony or respond to a request for comment for this story.

Perhaps the most class-conscious take on González’s proposal comes from a surprising source: Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the state’s largest police union. Wilkison registered in favor of the bill in February, and he has a history of beefing with the Texas GOP’s right wing. “Texas is a volatile place for working folks … where profits are regularly placed ahead of workers’ rights,” he told the Observer. “Representative González is working to make sure there is a public repository of shame for those who prey on the hardworking women and men of the Texas workforce.”

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Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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