Category Archives: Wage Theft

Breaking Rocks in Idaho for $4.50 an hour. No, really–that’s how H-2B “guest” workers are treated

NWJP just filed a lawsuit in Boise on behalf of a worker brought into the country under the H-2B temporary worker program to do isolated, grueling work breaking rock in the mountains in Idaho and Utah. Under the H-2B program, the workers were supposed to be paid a prevailing wage of $9.18 per hour.  Instead, our client was paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.  Working long, difficult, 60 hour weeks, the workers were paid by the quantity of rock broken, not by the hour.  Even then, the pay didn’t match the worker’s records of the tons of rock the worker produced. No overtime pay.  The workers lived in isolated barracks-style trailers in the mountains. The trailers had no electricity, bathrooms, running water, or refrigerators.  The workers drew water for showering, drinking, and washing clothes from a water tank on site. At times drinking water was not available for a day to a day and a half when the tank ran dry.

When Pablo Rodriguez complained to the boss about his pay, he was falsely accused of planning to sabotage the machinery needed for the work.  Fearful of being blamed for any mechanical breakdown, he felt he had no choice but to leave the job early.

August 2016 – From Michael’s Desk: A Decent Place to Live; a Decent Job

With the skyrocketing cost of living in the Portland area and the shortage of affordable housing units, we’re seeing growing advocacy around issues of affordable housing, protection from eviction, and houselessness resources.  Sadly, all too often, housing champions and worker advocates seem to pass each other by like ships in the night.

Actually, there is a profound relationship in play here.  Many, and perhaps most, of our clients at NWJP are either shelterless themselves, or only one mishap at work away from finding themselves without a place to stay.  When a worker is cheated out of an expected paycheck, it may well be the rent money that’s short in the check.  If the worker complains, and gets fired in retaliation, the time that it takes to find a new job may exhaust any money that a family has been able to save from its very low income, and the kindness of family and friends, as well.  Once more, the street looms.

And, of course, those who don’t have a place to sleep, bathe, receive mail or get a message are at a serious disadvantage in holding or finding a job.

It makes sense for social justice organizations to use their particular skills and knowledge to do the work they have the best capacity to do.  But we need to begin thinking hard about how we could work together to solve these interconnected social justice issues.  One example:  Could a worker with a righteous wage claim that will take a few months to resolve borrow against the value of the claim to be able to pay rent in the meantime?  Do we need to find the means of making these types of loans possible?  Could housing providers help identify and connect families in housing jeopardy due to illegal labor practices with services both to solve work problems and keep the sheriff at bay in the meantime?

Just thinking . . .

 

DMD
Michael Dale
Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Attorney, NWJP

Minimum Wage Rose on July 1st!

On July 1st, minimum wages rose across Oregon. NWJP worked hard in the short 2016 legislative session to support its partners in the Raise the Wage coalition and to secure the increase, while assuring that no industry, like agricultural or restaurant, was exempted from the increase. While the law was 2015 Raise The Wage Lobby Daycertainly a compromise, this summer well over one hundred thousand low-wage workers in Oregon got a desperately needed raise.

In Portland and the state’s more populated counties, the minimum wage rose to $9.75 on July 1. In Malheur, Lake, Harney, Wheeler, Sherman, Gilliam, Wallowa, Grant, Jefferson, Baker, Union, Crook, Klamath, Douglas, Coos, Curry, Umatilla and Morrow counties, our more rural counties, it went up to $9.50. Eventually separating into three regions with separate wage tiers, the wage across the state will steadily increase through 2022 and then be indexed to inflation.

NWJP also worked to influence the regulations that Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) issued specifying which minimum wage would apply to employees who worked in more than one minimum wage region or away from their employers’ fixed locations. The regulations also are certainly a compromise. However, they assure that an employee who works 50% or more of their time in a higher wage region than the region of their employer’s fixed place of business will receive the higher wage. Those that work in more than one region away from their employer’s fixed location will receive either a) the regional minimum wage for each hour worked in each region, or b) the highest of the minimum wages for all of the hours. This will prevent employers from moving to lower wage regions, while dispatching employees into higher ones, in an effort to game the system.

We know that a higher minimum wage will not stop wage theft and even may encourage employers to steal wages from their workers to maintain their profit margins. Therefore, NWJP continues to advocate for stronger laws against wage theft, to educate workers about their rights under the law, to backstop the efforts of community partners to help workers collect wages and will be accepting cases from workers who believe that their employer is not complying.

 

 

 

Trial Victory for Clients in Wage Theft Case

By Marcus Swift, NWJP Staff Attorney

Two NWJP clients who had been underpaid working for a suburban house-cleaning service found wage justice in Washington County Circuit Court in late March, winning a unanimous jury verdict on two of three counts. The clients, Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Renderos, won at trial on their claims that the employer failed to pay the minimum wage for all the hours worked and failed to pay final wages.

[pullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]"We are thankful for all of the hard work that the Northwest Workers' Justice Project performed on our case and the cases of so many others,” said Ms. Ruiz. “We are very happy that they gave us a voice and helped us achieve justice."[/pullquote]

Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Renderos were hired to work for an individual and her cleaning company in February 2014. They spent their days cleaning houses and apartments nearly every weekday during that month, but quickly noticed that their paychecks seemed too small for the number of hours they were working. Not being paid what they were legally owed, Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Renderos quit so that they could find better jobs to help support their families. After they stopped working for the employer, they were still owed a final paycheck for their last week of work, but the employer refused to pay their final wages.

Several pleas to pay the wages owed were ignored, and that’s when Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Renderos decided to contact the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project. An attorney for NWJP reached out to the employer but was also ignored. After being contacted by NWJP a second time, the employer changed her records and paid the clients a small amount more. But the hours were still incorrect and the payments were not enough. So, Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Renderos were forced to bring an action in court.

The six person jury listened for two days in a Washington County courtroom as attorneys on both sides presented their case, offered evidence, and examined witnesses. In the end, it took the jury only two and a half hours to find in favor of Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Renderos.

We congratulate the clients for their courage and fortitude.

Oregon Legislature looks to tackle big issues for low-wage workers in 2016

By Marcus Swift, NWJP's Staff Attorney
Photographer unknown

The 79th assembly of the Oregon Legislature doesn’t officially start until February 1, 2016, but efforts are already underway to improve conditions for Oregon workers. The most pressing issues? An increase to the state’s minimum wage and added tools to enforce existing wage laws, protect workers, and collect unpaid wages.

Various proposals to increase the minimum wage have been introduced through both the ballot initiative process and the legislature, including the latest – a plan by Governor Kate Brown to raise the minimum wage gradually to $15.52 in the Portland metro area and $13.50 statewide by 2022. Hundreds of supporters of an increased minimum wage attended a legislative hearing on the topic held on January 14. We heard compelling testimony from workers from around the state, including that of Bertha, one of our clients, who dreams of sending her daughter to college but can barely afford to stay afloat on her minimum wage job.

Working people in Oregon stand to gain much needed economic stability through efforts to raise the minimum wage. At the same time, an alarming number of workers are not receiving their wages after the job is done. This is especially common for people who work in restaurants, retail stores, construction, Oregon’s agricultural industry, and as domestic workers.

This session, the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, led by NWJP, is supporting legislation to lay a solid foundation for additional reforms in 2017. Our proposed bill in 2016 would increase workers' ability to access their own wage and hour records (including detailed pay stubs), and hold employers accountable for denying access to such records. Additionally, the bill would give the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) additional resources to stop employers who are repeat offenders.

In an interim hearing on January 13, lawmakers heard from state and national experts on wage theft, officials from BOLI, and several workers in industries impacted by wage theft, including healthcare, construction, and the building trades. A tentative hearing on the full legislation is expected to take place on February 4, 2016.

To help make a difference and pass stronger wage theft laws this session, click here to find your Oregon State Senator and Representative. Then call or e-mail them and let them know that you support stronger enforcement of wage theft laws during the 2016 session.

December 2015: From Michael’s Desk

IMG_4506
Michael attends the 2016 Legislative Agenda Launch for the Fair Shot Coalition, which has included wage theft among its priorities. (Photo courtesy of Heather Stuart.)

We’re quite excited by the crackling energy around increasing the minimum wage.  We also are delighted that Fair Shot for All—an important coalition of labor and community organizations—has adopted wage theft as one of its three priorities for the 2016 session.

There is a very strong connection between wage theft and raising the minimum wage.  Our client community is struggling to recover from twenty years of declining real wages and the sluggish job recovery in the sectors in which our clients work.  Plus, the disintegration of permanent real jobs into smaller and smaller temp, part-time, contingent work—the “gig” economy—has made it more and more difficult to survive (see the accompanying piece about this). Meanwhile, the distribution of income in the country becomes more distorted.  Low wage Oregonians desperately need a raise.

But when we raise the wage we can only expect that we will see even more theft of wages from the most vulnerable workers. To make a higher wage real, we must give workers the power to claim what they’ve earned.  Providing effective tools to access the legal system or otherwise collect the full measure of wages the law requires has to be a part of what the legislature does, or the promise of a decent minimum wage rate will be a cruel illusion. We’re excited to be finding new energy and partnerships to work on this indispensable part of a fair agenda for 2016.

If you can help out with winning these advances, let us hear from you at coalition@nwjp.org.

Wishing you a safe, warm, and happy holidays,

DMD
Michael Dale
Founder, Executive Director and Senior Attorney, NWJP

Case of the Month: two painters struggle to recover back pay

by Bonnie Allen-Sailer, NWJP Staff Attorney
Photo by Antonio Jimenez Alonso (freeimages.com)

Fernando’s story is a common one these days: working as a painter for the same company off and on for over 10 years, he kept long hours, and racked 60-70 hours of work each week. His day normally started at 6 a.m., when he arrived at the boss’s shop to load materials and equipment before heading out to the jobsite for the day. He’d then put in 10-11 hours of physically demanding work, cleaned up at the end, and headed back to the shop to drop off the company’s vehicle and materials. His boss, however, only paid him straight time – no overtime – for the hours he painted and, contrary to state law, nothing at all for the time spent loading and unloading the truck and traveling between the shop and jobsites.

As if that weren’t bad enough, in May 2014 the company fired Fernando with no warning and no explanation, which was not illegal per se, but certainly confusing and frustrating after Fernando gave 10 years to a company he thought cared about him. Betrayed and upset, Fernando felt he was undervalued and disrespected. Along with Juan, a co-worker who had experienced similar pay abuses in his three months at the company, Fernando decided to fight.

When NWJP contacted the company on behalf of Fernando and Juan, it was dismissive at first, arguing the workers had agreed to not be paid overtime. Based on our clients’ testimony, we knew that not to be true. But even if it were, the law does not allow workers to waive their right to overtime. So our clients kept fighting.

This past October, a year and five months after Fernando was terminated, we were able to negotiate a settlement of $42,000 for him and Juan for back pay for the past three years (the maximum time period the law would allow). Not only were Fernando and Juan brave enough to fight the company for their hard-earned pay, but also courageous in rejecting the company’s request for a confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement, making it clear that workers have the right to know and enforce their rights without restraint and the company should not be able to hide their wrongdoing.

In November, the company made the final of a series of payments to Fernando and Juan for the overtime and off-the-clock wages they were owed. The attorney’s fees we received in the case will be used to help empower other workers like Fernando and Juan so that they can stand up for, and enforce their employment rights.