Low-wage workers cry foul in Summit County
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Workers in Summit County earning low wages say they face a variety of problems, from racial discrimination to not getting paid at all.
“A lot of times we the employees don’t know our rights as workers and companies can abuse this lack of knowledge,” said Nubia Sanchez, a two-year Silverthorne resident. “We want to learn more about our rights as workers and how to protect ourselves.”
Local public agencies, nonprofit organizations and employers are working to help these workers stabilize in the workforce and achieve greater self-sufficiency through awareness and education.
A recent meeting sponsored by Colorado Legal Services, Global Summit and the Family and Intercultural Resource Center allowed low-wage workers in Summit County to speak up regarding labor laws and their rights.
Patricia Medige, an attorney with Colorado Legal Services in Denver, said she is all too familiar with employers who abuse their power, especially when their employees are immigrants.
“The first thing to know is that every worker in this country has rights, and it doesn’t matter if the person has visa status or immigrant status,” Medige said.
Often employees will complete a job only to be told by the employer that they can’t receive wages until the see a Social Security card, which is illegal, Medige said.
“If someone has done the job then they have the right to receive wages, it’s the law,” said Medige, as she addressed the meeting’s attendants in both English and Spanish.
Dave Koons, president of the Summit County Builders Association, recognizes the prevalence of immigrant workers in the construction industry, and said his industry goes to great lengths to ensure they get treated fairly.
“There is a lot of focus on immigrant labor right now, and we make sure that every single worker we have gets paid as an employee and has workers compensation,” said Koons. “I would assume, like in anything else, there are people that break the law, but we really try to avoid these problems in Summit County.”
Many times low-wage immigrant workers aren’t aware they have the right to medical coverage if they are injured on the job, and this lack of knowledge can be abused by employers, Medige said.
If an employee is injured on the job, they are required to report the incident to their employer immediately. The employer then has 20 days either accept or deny responsibility, and if they do accept responsibility the company then has to pay the employee’s medical bills, Medige said.
Workers compensation claims are particularly prevalent in the construction industry, which employees a large percentage of immigrant workers in the state of Colorado.
Compensation issues often can become blurry when a worker is hired as an independent contractor as opposed to a full-time employee. Employers working with independent contractors generally do not have to withhold or pay any taxes on payments to those workers and often times they are not covered by the same stringent worker safety standards as full-time employees.
“Sometimes it is easier for an employer to hire workers as independent contractors but this does not give much protection to the employee,” said Medige. “It’s important to establish that you are a worker and you are entitled to the same rights as other employees.”
The Summit County Workforce Center and the Family and Intercultural Resource Center offers lots of information regarding low-wage workers’ rights and encourage those individuals with questions to come in and meet with a counselor.
“Everybody who attended the meeting has 10 or more friends with the same questions,” said Rob Murphy with the Family and Intercultural Resource Center.
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