Spotlight Exclusives

Fighting Wage Theft: A Path Toward Protecting Workers

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Each year, thousands of Texas workers are denied full pay for the work they have performed. They are among the millions of Americans all over the country who fall prey to a phenomenon called wage theft, which describes being paid for fewer hours than one actually worked, not being paid for overtime, or being paid at a lower than agreed upon wage, which is sometimes less than minimum wage.  

To address this issue, I authored Texas Senate Bill 1024, relating to the prosecution of the offense of theft of service, which overwhelmingly passed the state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry this past May. The new law addresses incidents of wage theft by making it easier for law enforcement to prosecute employers who willfully fail to pay workers for all of the work they have done. This improved enforcement of wage theft violations represents an important step forward in protecting Texas workers.

Wage theft has been a serious problem in Texas. In a survey of construction workers in Austin, one in every five workers experienced wage theft. Day laborers in particular were significantly affected by this issue, with 50 percent having experienced wage theft.

A recent study conducted by the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project underscores the prevalence of wage theft in my district. The report shows that one in every five low-wage workers did not receive minimum wage, and one in every eight workers was a victim of wage theft. During the last two years, Paso del Norte has received complaints from El Paso workers, whose reports amount to nearly $1 million in unpaid wages.

This scourge not only hurts workers, but also employers who play by the rules. Law-abiding and fair employers effectively put themselves at a disadvantage in the market because they have to pay more for the same services.

Although wage theft was considered a crime before SB 1024 was passed, language in the Texas Penal Code defining the criminal intent to avoid payment was unclear and hindered law enforcement officers and prosecutors from imposing sanctions on employers who abused the law. Consequently, only a few police departments were investigating these cases, and employers were often able to dodge the remaining payments that they owed to their workers with the promise that they would pay in full at a later date.

To counteract this problem, the new law addresses the ambiguity in the statute that obstructed past attempts to combat wage theft. The new law establishes that an employer commits “theft of service” if the employer does not pay wages in full after receiving notice demanding payment. In addition, the new law provides immediate relief by permitting workers to file a complaint at any point in the pay period.

By improving enforcement and clarifying the law, there is greater assurance that those who do the work will be paid what they were promised. This powerful tool for workers to recover their unpaid wages will also help the many Texans who were previously unable to meet their family۪s basic needs due to wage theft.  

It is important to recognize that most employers do follow the law. But for those who think it۪s acceptable to cheat their workers out of promised wages, we must make sure that they are held responsible.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Jos̩ Rodrguez represents the 29th Senate district in the Texas State legislature.

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