Catholic Charities: Wage theft victimizes us all, but help is out there to combat it (column)
For the majority of workers in this country, receiving your paycheck on the scheduled day is expected and something we may take for granted. A little-known and somewhat alarming fact is that in Colorado, conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 workers are the victims of some form of wage theft each year.
Estimates suggest that in 2014, more than $750 million in legally owed pay and benefits were denied to those who rightfully earned them. This estimate is four times the amount reported each year in theft, robberies and burglaries combined (towardsjustice.org 2016 report). Locally, so far this year, Catholic Charities assisted 26 families with the recovery of more than $21,000 out of a reported $65,500 in owed wages.
So, what exactly is wage theft? It can be nonpayment of wages — when an employer does not pay a worker for some or all of the hours he or she has worked. It may be underpayment of wages — when a worker is paid less than the required federal minimum wage, overtime wages are not paid or workers are paid less than promised.
Employers may engage in wage theft when they misclassify workers; i.e., a worker is classified as an independent contractor when he or she is actually an employee. Wage theft may also occur when an employer illegally deducts the cost of anything necessary to perform the job (tools, materials, transportation) from a worker’s paycheck or pays less than is required for those workers receiving tips and/or force workers to share tips with managers or employers.
Catholic Charities, Western Slope is actively engaged in assisting workers who are victims of wage theft to recover their wages. While those in the most vulnerable populations (including immigrants, individuals who are illiterate or those with mental health needs) are the most likely to be victimized, we see wage theft across many demographics, including a large number of college students seeking summer employment.
When an individual comes to us with a possible wage-theft complaint, we will typically start with contacting the employer. We may enter into mediation with the employer and worker to try to recoup the wages or simply assist the worker in writing a letter asking for his or her wages to be paid. If those attempts are not successful, then we will inform the worker of other options he or she may try. These may include a claim filed in small-claims court or a report made to the Department of Labor.
We also work to help the families victimized by wage theft avoid eviction, maintain heat and prevent homelessness. As wage theft victimizes individuals across many demographics, wage theft offenders can be found in every industry, though construction, landscaping, restaurant and service industries are more prone to wage theft.
The Colorado Department of Labor is now making available a list of employers that have been found to be guilty of wage violations since April 2017. Please be an informed potential employee and/or consumer and hire subcontractors responsibly by going to http://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/wagelaw and clicking on the link under “Wage Theft Transparency Act.” Though the list is not even close to being exhaustive at this time, one of the ways we can help to curb wage theft is by not hiring or supporting the employers that engage in these practices.
If you are looking for a job this summer, then there are steps you can take to help avoid an employer that may take advantage of you. It may seem obvious, but don’t return to an employer that has not paid you in the past. Chances are high they aren’t going to pay you all of your wages this go around. Beware of “kiting,” in which employers “string along” employees with the promise of more wages on future projects in lieu of on-time payment now. And check the mentioned list to make sure your potential employer is not listed as an offender.
Wage theft has broad community impact, including whether a family can afford food or medical care. Workers are often at risk of losing their homes as a result of not being paid. It affects us as local nonprofits that provide emergency assistance, health and human services and education, as it destabilizes families. Please know that victims are encouraged to come forward, and please be an informed consumer and look beyond the surface.
If you believe you have been victimized, are being victimized or know someone who is, then please contact our office at 970-949-0405 or 970-384-2060 for an appointment and consultation. We also urge you to contact us if you would like to volunteer, learn more or to support what we are doing. Know that Catholic Charities is here to help.
Marian McDonough is the regional director of Catholic Charities, Western Slope. She can be reached at email@example.com.