DC Council Passes Wage Theft Prevention Act
Monday, the DC Wage Theft Coalition celebrated a major victory with the unanimous passage of the Wage Theft Prevention Act by the DC Council. Before heading into the Wilson Building for the final vote, workers and allies rallied on the steps in support of passing the bill with no amendments that would weaken its protections for DC workers. The tone of the rally was celebratory but determined. As Jose Cruz, an EJC worker activist, put it, “I am here today to both fight wage theft and stand up for all DC workers… we are going to win!” Jose’s fiery introduction was followed by bilingual chants of, “If the people ask for it, no one will stop them!” The workers and the DC Wage Theft Coalition were joined by advocates for the Fair Criminal Records Screening Act of 2014, also known as the “Ban the Box” bill. The bill, which was also passed unanimously by the DC Council, aims to remove barriers to gainful employment for returning citizens by prohibiting private employers from considering a job applicant’s arrest record during the hiring process and also restrict employers from looking into a job applicant’s prior convictions before extending a conditional offer of employment.
“[Today is] a monumental day in DC history where two bills will be passed that will be landmark legislation for the workers of the city. We are here [to support] the passage of Ban the Box and Anti-Wage Theft legislation,” said Aja Taylor, organizer with Bread for the City. “It is important to understand that the work doesn’t stop there. Passing the bill is the first step, making that it works for people is our job.” Worker activists, advocates and allies waited patiently hours through a lengthy legislative meeting agenda in the Wilson Building. EJC organizers Emma Cleveland, Hannah Kane and Rachel Lerman pulled extra duty, simultaneously translating the proceedings into Spanish to ensure equal access to all the worker activist who had spent months on the campaign. Thanks to the organizers’ tireless efforts, all the workers were able to hear and comprehend as the Wage Theft Prevention Act came up for discussion. Councilmebmer Cheh introduce two friendly amendments to strengthen the bill. First, a technical addition clarifying that the strengthened wage theft protections should also apply to the paid sick days legislation. The second amendment, dealing with temporary staffing agencies, ensured that the law was flexible enough to apply to the agencies particular needs while still guaranteeing that all workers would be equally protected. Chairman Mendelson also introduced a very last minute amendment to alter the criminal penalties of the bill, changing it from a maximum fine of $10,000 for first violation to a minimum fine of $1,000, or equal to the wages owed [whichever is greater], with similar changes for subsequent violations. Though Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1) spoke up to ask more questions about this last minute amendment, it was accepted as friendly and incorporated into bill. The entire room became alert as the bill’s co-introducer and long time champion, Councilmember Vincent Orange (At Large) introduced the bill and thanked “all the advocates who worked extremely hard on this bill to get us to this point today.” “I’d like to thank the advocates for coming down here to advocate for it, they’ve been very steadfast” added Council Member Barry (Ward 8) before Chairman Mendelson brought the bill to a vote. The Wage Theft Prevent Act of 2014 was passed unanimously. As Chairman Mendelson noted the passage of the law for the official record, a joyous chorus of voices and applause broke meeting decorum to greet the long awaited passage of the landmark legislation. The mood was further elevated ten minutes later when the Council passed the equally historic Ban the Box legislation unanimously. As a second, almost cathartic, chorus of applause and cheers raced through the room Chairman Mendelson halfheartedly reminded the audience to be silent before sincerely thanking them for their support. The Wage Theft Prevention Act will strengthen and expand safeguards against wage theft in the District. The bill will combat wage theft by:
- Establishing formal procedures to enable victims of wage theft to recover unpaid wages and damages;
- Increasing the penalties for those responsible for committing wage theft;
- Providing greater protection for workers who stand up for their rights;
- And making it easier for wage theft victims to get legal representation.
The Employment Justice Center recognizes that our work is far from over when it comes to ending wage theft. Yet, we are enormously proud of what the Wage Theft Coalition has been able to accomplish and are humbled by the leadership and sacrifices of the Worker Activists, without whose contributions this victory would not have been possible. We would like to take a moment to thank all the members of the Wage Theft Coalition and to all of our supporters who helped make this week’s victory possible. We at EJC are going to looking forward to brief celebration of these great victories before we plunge back into helping to guarantee the rights of DC workers.