Report on Wage Theft in El Paso Exposes Newest Crime Wave

Texas Civil Rights Project

“One in every five low-wage workers in El Paso receives under minimum wage.” This is just one of the many disturbing findings presented by from Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, Border Network for Human Rights, the Labor Justice Committee, Dr. Cristina Morales, and Eric Murillo who unveiled their report on wage theft and labor violations in the El Paso area  at the local office of the Border Network for Human Rights.

This groundbreaking report uncovers an epidemic of wage and hour violations running rampant in the El Paso area, and the impunity with which employers are able to violate their employees’ rights.

Get the full report on Wage Theft in El Paso [pdf 1.1 mb] See executive summary below.

The report shows that wage theft is a widespread problem that occurs when employers fail to pay employees for their work. In certain industries like construction and domestic work, wage theft occurs in epidemic proportions. Wage theft also undercuts responsible businesses who can’t compete, and hurts working families by forcing them to face unexpected hardships.

“These results come as no surprise to members of our community who labor in low-wage industries. Workers in El Paso work so hard for their families. But employers regularly underpay or fail to pay workers for their work. We have rights, but employers don’t respect those rights,” Said Lidia Cruz, member of the Labor Justice Committee.

“One in five low-wage workers are receiving under the legally-mandated minimum wage. Almost 2/3 of workers who should be receiving overtime compensation are not.” Said Dr. Cristina Morales, author of the report. “This Report reveals these labor violations for what they really are, a crime wave that is sweeping our region.”

The Report not only documents violations but provides concrete policy recommendations for local leaders to combat this epidemic immediately. The recommendations include the passage of a local wage theft ordinance that would fill the gaps of state and federal labor law.

Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, an El Paso-based legal organization that assists low-wage workers with employment violations, worked with the other authors to produce this report. “It’s hard to imagine any other area of law where the law is violated and treated with impunity at these levels. Because of limited resources, we have an area of law with very little enforcement at the state or federal level.” Said Chris Benoit, attorney for the organization. “This Report provides our local leaders with the tools to better protect these most vulnerable members of the El Paso community.”


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

“EL PASO’S NEWEST CRIME WAVE: A WAGE THEFT EPIDEMIC IN THE BORDERLANDS”

This report provides the first-ever statistical analysis of an epidemic of wage and hour violations occurring among low-wage workers in the El Paso region. In an economy where many workers are struggling to get by, this Report tells the story of local workers who have lost their homes and livelihood due to wage theft and reveals the government’s inability to address these violations. Finally, the authors explore steps that El Paso can take to better protect exploited workers.

THE LOW-WAGE WORKFORCE:
Of those who were interviewed for this study, men and women were fairly equally represented. The overwhelming majority of workers were Latino. A little over half of the workers had lived in the U.S. for at least ten years. In addition, almost 80% of the workers received less than $10 per hour for their primary employment.

VIOLATIONS:
Minimum wage: One in every five low-wage workers receives less than minimum wage. 20 % of low-income workers surveyed in El Paso regularly receive less than minimum wage for their work.
Gender Inequality: Women suffer wage violations more than men. Of the women surveyed, more than 27% were paid below minimum wage compared to 14% of men.

Domestic Workers: Over 43% of women working as domestic workers in El Paso were paid below minimum wage.

Overtime: Almost 2/3 of low-wage employees working over 40 hours a week do not receive overtime compensation as required by law. 65% of respondents who worked over 40 hours per week were not given overtime compensation for the hours they worked in excessive of 40 hours per week. These violations are most common in the restaurant industry.

Wage Theft: One in every eight low-wage worker did not receive his/her promised wage in the two months preceding the survey.

Silencing Workers: Retaliation keeps workers from speaking up. Employers often terminate employment, threaten to call immigration, and threaten to sue workers when workers complain of unlawful wages in an effort to silence them.

UNPROTECTED WORKERS:
Rampant wage theft occurs because the laws are not enforced. A patchwork of laws protects workers irrespective of their immigration status, national origin, or gender. In reality, state and federal labor agencies tasked with enforcing these laws fail to do so due to both procedures and a lack of resources. As a result, workers often find themselves in a position with no real options and nowhere to go for help.

Texas Workforce Commission: The Texas Workforce Commission is tasked with enforcing the Texas Payday Law. Lack of enforcement, however, severely limits its effectiveness. The Commission only has between 15-20 investigators, all of whom are located in Austin and are prohibited from conducting field investigations.

U.S. Department of Labor: The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor enforces the Fair Labor Standards Act. A lack of resources impairs their ability to respond to workers’ complaints. In addition, the Department of Labor prohibits workers from having representation or an advocate to help them through the process even if the employer is represented.

Private Right of Action: Workers have the right to hire an attorney to sue their employer to enforce these laws. However, very few attorneys are willing to take these kinds of cases because they do not have great potential to make a profit.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

Increase Federal and State Enforcement:
The Texas Workforce Commission and the U.S. Department of Labor should increase their enforcement capacity and decrease the time it takes to assign an investigator and resolve cases.

Institute a Local Wage Theft Ordinance:
It is possible to both provide better protection for workers and secure more revenue for the city with the passage of a local wage theft ordinance. The ordinance should do the following:

-Prohibit failure to paid promised wages, overtime, and retaliation;

-Provide a procedure for reporting and investigating violations, either civil or criminal;

-Increase penalties, both civil and criminal, for unscrupulous employers;

-Ensure that violators pay penalties back to the City to defray enforcement costs.

Get the full report on Wage Theft in El Paso [pdf 1.1 mb]

The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) promotes racial, social, and economic justice through education and litigation. TCRP strives to foster equality, secure justice, ensure diversity, and strengthen communities. TCRP was founded in 1990 as part of Oficina Legal del Pueblo Unido, a non-profit community-based foundation located in South Texas.

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