Crossing the finish line to uphold workers’ rights in the District

The Just Pay Coalition heads into the hearing

Last Friday, a broad coalition of worker activists, organizers and advocates came together to liven up the public oversight hearings for the Department of Employment Services (DOES) and Office of Risk Management (ORM). The Employment Justice Center, DC Jobs with Justice, Restaurant Opportunities Center-DC, ONE DC,  UFCW Local 400 and the rest Just Pay Coalition returned to the John. A Wilson Building with our partners at the Fair Budget Coalition and Injured Worker Advocates to urge the DC Council to help them cross the finish line to protect workers’ rights in the District by fully implementing recently passed legislation regarding paid sick days, the minimum wage, and wage theft.

Prior to entering the hearing, activists called over Councilmember Vincent Orange to thank him for his work to prevent wage theft. Nikki Lewis, executive director of DC Jobs with Justice,  asked the Councilmember to join activists in crossing over a ceremonial finish line to symbolize the importance of robust enforcement of DC’s new laws upholding workers’ rights while dressing up as a runner for added effect. Councilmember Orange, though slightly taken aback by the surprising and energetic action, thanked the crowd for their advocacy as he headed into the hearing.

However, the hearing wasn’t all fun and games. The Just Pay Coalition and DC working community made it clear that these laws, as historic as they are, are only the first step. We will not declare victory until these laws become the reality for all workers in the District.

The Just Pay Coalition alternated between celebrating the passage of the laws and demanding that the Department of Employment Services (DOES and ORM) be more transparent, accountable to the public, and proactive in enforcing the new laws.

Martha Salas testifies about her experience of wage theft.

Martha Salas testifies about her experience of wage theft.

Workers, activists, and advocates then packed the room at the performance oversight hearing with the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to support workers testifying about their experiences with wage theft and filing claims at DOES’ Office of Wage-Hour (OWH), and in pursuing their public sector workers’ compensation claims with the Office of Risk Management (ORM). The worker’s testimony was both deeply moving and highly illustrative of the problems in both departments.

“I went to complain because they didn’t pay me paid sick days and they fired me without justification, just because I asked for time off when I was sick. I also filed a claim to be paid for my last check and two other weeks I wasn’t paid for, and also asked to be paid damages because of my retaliatory firing,” said Yisley Henriquez, a restaurant worker. “It’s very seriously affected my health, and it’s gotten to the point that I’ve had to take anti-depressants.”

“It is also difficult to show proof of the wage theft,” said Bruno Avila, who accompanies workers to file claims at the Office of Wage-Hour as a promotor with the EJC. “They [OWH] don’t believe the testimony of the victim. They don’t try to check the victim’s version or investigate at all. This causes the victim to be disillusioned and makes employers continue to mock the law to the detriment of society.

Bruno testifies at the DOES performance oversight hearing.

Bruno testifies at the DOES performance oversight hearing.

Workers and advocates also testified with recommendations for the DOES and OWH. “We want you to educate the community and businesses about the laws, and when there is a report of a violation, that you also assess whether any other violations are occurring in the establishment.,” said Tomas Arevalo, member of the EJC’s Workers’ Committee.

Worker Activist from the EJC’s Workers’ Committee were joined by Injured Worker Activists testifying about the Office of Risk Management’s handling of Public Sector Worker’s Compensation. One long time IWA self advocate Constance Ware ended her testimony by saying “It’s not right to act on a 5 minute medical opinion of an AME before I even have a hearing. It’s not right that workers are not receiving cost of living increases each year. I am here today to ask you to introduce legislation to restore a fair process for injured workers like me so that we do not suffer from financial hardship or even homelessness because ORM cuts our benefits and health care while we are waiting for a hearing and decision on our case.”

Four injured worker advocates testifying abotu DC's public sector workers' compensation at the ORM performance oversight hearing.

Four injured worker advocates testifying about DC’s public sector workers’ compensation at the ORM performance oversight hearing.

 

All told, it was a strong showing for the Just Pay Coalition as several members testified, participated in the actions and brought workers to pack the room. The Just Pay Coalition was joined by the Fair Budget Coalition’s Monica Kamen who testified to the importance of fully funding a robust and proactive implementation strategy for the both DOES and ORM.

Nikki Lewis, decked out in a stylish running outfit, hammered home the message of our the broad coalition:

Nikki Lewis testifies that the DC Council needs to join her in crossing the finish line.

Nikki Lewis testifies that the DC Council needs to join her in crossing the finish line.

“Our coalition is here to ask you to cross the finish line by ensuring that DOES, particularly OWH, are accountable, transparent, and proactive in enforcing our labor laws. We have found that many large and small corporate employers are still not offering paid sick days, still not abiding by the new minimum wage increase. Our people and workers are tired of running a marathon fighting for basic workplace rights.”