Why We Need The Wage Theft Prevention Act

Last year, the District of Columbia received an F grade on a national report of wage theft laws throughout the United States.

It is far too easy for employers in DC to commit wage theft – to refuse to pay all or part of a worker’s regular wages or overtime. And it is far too difficult for victims of wage theft to hold employers accountable for not paying them the money they worked so hard for.

On Friday, March 14, Councilmember Vincent Orange convened a hearing on the “Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2014” to finally do something about the District’s dismal laws and enforcement that fail so many workers.

The bill, co-introduced by Councilmembers Orange (At-Large), Graham (Ward 1) and Cheh (Ward 3), would create a more transparent, efficient, and reliable process to file and resolve wage claims, provide better protections for workers who stand up for their rights, allow for better access to lawyers for wage theft victims, and increase penalties to hold dishonest and unscrupulous employers accountable.

At the hearing, many workers testified about their experiences with wage theft and how the current system isn’t doing enough to protect their rights and their hard earned pay.

Unpaid Wages

Maria Hernandez was hired to clean a school the day before classes were to begin. “We worked for 16 hours straight,” she told the committee. “And once we finished working – tired, frustrated – they refused to pay us for what we had worked.” Maria’s story is tragic, but sadly it is also far too common.

Mario de la Cruz testified that he is owed about $5,000 for 34 days of work. Maria Sandoval spoke about how she was made to work for over a month without getting paid. Samuel Abutair discussed how he was fired without being paid, and that the employer had done this to four other workers as well.

Several workers were paid for fewer hours than were owed to them. Julio Sanchez told the committee that he “used to finish work in the bar were I worked at 3:30 AM, but they made us punch out at 12:30 AM.” And Tomas Arevalo stated that he worked about 45 hours a week, but was only paid for 40 hours of work.

Harming Workers

Those lost wages have major consequences, as several workers spoke to. Without them, many workers struggled to make ends meet, missing bill payments, harming their credit and, in some cases, causing them to become homeless. For several, such hardships also led to emotional distress and health problems.

A Failed System

Other workers testified as to how the Office of Wage Hour had let them down, or made the process slow and difficult.

“When I first took them the overtime issue…it took more than a year,” stated Danny Felix. “And I’m getting paid at the bottom of the totem pole. I’m living off of this money. I’m trying to pay bills and juggling.”

Omar Sorto talked about how OWH failed him. “The Office of Wage Hour had set a date for a fact finding conference,” he said, “but they informed me of it 2 days after the conference was supposed to be held. I learned about the conference too late.”

The Importance of the Wage Theft Prevention Act

As bad as wage theft in the District of Columbia has been, the Wage Theft Prevention Act would be a huge step forward.

Tomas Arevalo explained how important it would be to him. “It would help me be more reliable in bringing home food to my family and maintaining my home. I think that, with this law, I’ll be able to pay my bills and other experiences, to be able to keep my home, and it would be more stable.”

And as EJC Deputy Director Ari Weisbard put it, “People who work hard for a living deserve to make a living. You’ve helped guarantee that pushing through very quickly the raise in the minimum wage, but now we need to make sure it’s enforceable, and that their wages are not stolen by the people who hire them.”