6/30/09 The Times-Picayune – Laborers Pack N.O. City Council Chambers to Support Wage-Theft Legislation
June 30, 2009
Laborers Pack N.O. City Council Chambers to Support Wage-Theft Legislation
by Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Times-Picayune
Wearing English and Spanish “Stop wage theft!” stickers over their hearts, an army of day laborers and their community advocates turned up at New Orleans City Hall Tuesday to offer their support for Council President Arnie Fielkow’s push to criminalize wage theft.
Laborer Ezequiel Falcon, who spends most days trolling for work in front of the Lowe’s on Elysian Fields Avenue, said being paid less than what a contractor promises him for a project makes it difficult for him to provide for his family.
A city ordinance allowing police officers to handcuff any contractors who short-change laborers they hire would empower workers, he told Fielkow in Spanish through a translator.
Arturo Xo Cuz said that a contractor who ripped him off taunted him after Xo Cuz consulted Jacinta Gonzalez and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice’s Congress for Day Laborers, an advocacy group focused on protecting people from wage theft.
“He said, ‘You got lawyers? Well, I have lawyers too. I dare you to call them.”
That happened two weeks ago, Xo Cuz said. He took the contractor’s dare, and is still waiting to get paid.
“This isn’t a few bad apples,” Gonzalez told Fielkow. “This is systematic.”
New Orleans has become ground zero in a national effort to protect mostly Hispanic day laborers after recent surveys found about 80 percent of them have been stiffed on promised wages, mostly after finishing jobs rebuilding buildings destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The city by far has the highest incidence of wage theft in the South, according to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But workers, who are often in the United States illegally, have had little success bringing complaints to authorities.
Fielkow has been trying to pass a city law that would classify underpaying or denying wages to laborers a street crime similar to robbery. Falcon, other laborers and legal experts on Monday packed the council chamber table and audience seats to help make the case that wage theft also hurts legitimate contractors and city homeowners.
Freelancing contractors who underpay or deny wages to day laborers hold an unfair advantage over competitors who belong to a licensed union, experts said.
“They have a lower cost of (operation) because they don’t have to worry about wage theft,” said Ted Quant, director of Loyola’s Twomey Center of Peace through Justice.
Denying wages to laborers has the long-term effect of reducing the pool of workers, Fielkow added.
The laws on the books at all levels today aren’t enough, said Luz Molina, a Loyola University law professor. Federal statutes only protect day laborers civilly, but don’t hold the contractors who rip them off criminally liable, Molina said.
Many wage theft cases then aren’t covered at the the state or local level. Authorities have been lax about becoming involved, too, Molina said.
Several speakers — contractors and workers, African-American and Caucasian — voiced their support for the legislation.
Fielkow said he expects the council’s support in August, when he hopes to have the legislation drafted.
While workers can already file civil action against employers who don’t pay their full wages, illegal immigrants have difficulty taking such measures. Advocacy groups can file suits on their behalf, but workers don’t trust local authorities, who often report workers to federal immigration officials.
If illegal workers do take a chance and call the New Orleans Police Department to report wage theft, the officers often back off and tell them to file a civil complaint, NOPD Hispanic liaison officer Janssen Valencia said.
The U.S. Department of Labor is supposed to crack down on contractors who violate wage laws, but a March report by the Government of Accountability Office found the department’s enforcement has been lax.