We are going to get it done

ray hamlet picWhen Ray Hamlet went to the DC Office of Wage and Hour to file a claim for unpaid wages, he did not expect to be given the wrong information about how much money he was owed. But that is what happened when he went to report the thousands of dollars in overtime and unpaid wages he was entitled to from Carl’s Place, the group home for disabled adults that he worked in for several years.

Ray worked as a counselor at Carl’s Place and his workday started at 11:00pm and went well past 9:00am the next morning. He ensured the safety and security of the disabled men he looked after and prepared their morning meals. He worked an average of 20 hours of overtime each week and, when he noticed that his paychecks were short (as well as those of his coworkers), he followed up with his supervisor at Carl’s Place’s head office. He was told that it would all be “taken care of.” As weeks went by and Ray became worried that he would not be able to pay his bills on time, he asked the head of Carl’s Place about the status of his payment. She replied laconically that, “Don’t worry Ray, okay, we will figure it out and by the way we don’t need you anymore. I can do that. I can let you go.”

Ray was shocked and recalled that “no real reason was given. Are they claiming I was insubordinate because I kept asking for my money? I was there for the company because of the hours that I worked. That was my obligation.” He notes that he gave a huge part of his life to Carl’s Place and, “my job quit me.” Ray went to the Worker’s Rights Clinic hosted by the Employment Justice Center and learned that he would have to file a claim with the Office of Wage and Hour to get his unpaid wages. He also learned that in addition to being owed overtime, he was paid less than he should have been under the DC Living Wage Act. The Act requires that contractors and subcontractors receiving significant government assistance in DC, like Carl’s Place, pay their employees at least $12.50 an hour and Ray was paid less.

Ray went with an EJC Outreach Fellow to the Office of Wage and Hour to file his claim. Relieved that he had received some guidance about his case, Ray was expecting the Office to help him. He felt tense, but assumed that they were the experts and would pursue his claim. In fact, like states from Virginia to Iowa, the understaffed DC Office of Wage and Hour declined to offer much help. Unfortunately, in order to get help, workers are often required to provide copies of all their time-sheets and related documents, even though their employers often withhold these documents. After speaking to several OWH staff members, Ray was directed to an exemption in the Living Wage Act, ignoring the fact that the exemption wasn’t applicable because facilities like Carl’s Place, which operates under a waiver from D.C.’s Medicaid state plan requirements, are covered by DC’s living wage law.

Ray felt like “no one was on my side. Carl’s Place violated the law and the Office of Wage and Hour should be there to represent me. We need somebody to get up in their face. If I could afford to sue Carl’s Place, I would, but I do not have the means for that. If you make, like, $50,000 a year and you bring an attorney they will do their job. But who you are is how they weigh you.”

Ray noted that many people give up on the wages that are owed them, on the employers that can’t seem to do the right thing. He is not giving up. Ray joined with other members of the EJC’s worker’s rights group at a hearing held on May 1 to demand that the DC government hold the Office of Wage and Hour accountable and address wage theft in the city. Before the Hearing, Ray wondered, “Is it me? Could I have done something differently?” But when he met many others who have been denied the wages they have worked hard for, he realized that he is not alone. Across the country, workers are holding state and local governments accountable to uphold the law. In New York, advocacy by fast food workers has led to investigations of wage theft and in California new Labor Commissioner Julie Su is proving that government can be an aggressive advocate and protect both workers and good businesses that follow the law. The DC Wage Theft coalition of workers, unions and community organizations was also successful in securing more investigators for the DC Office of Wage and Hour. On May 2, the DC Department of Employment Services announced an increase of staff from five to eight. But there is much more work to be done. Ray concluded, “I’m looking out for the next person. If I scream loud enough, someone has to hear me. We started it, we need to keep it going. We are going to get it done.”

Want to support workers like Ray? Sign their petition to the DC Council asking for stronger wage theft enforcement laws.

This blog post was reported by Erin Kesler, an EJC Volunteer.