Wage theft is a growing problem in Eagle County. Some bad actors in the local business sector who, despite a booming economy and a very low rate of unemployment (i.e., not enough workers to go around), choose to play fast and loose with state labor laws and cheat people out of hard-earned wages in a variety of different ways.
I’ve had personal experience on that front, being misclassified as a contract journalist by an out-of-state employer who insisted on regular working hours and a work week in excess of 40 hours without paying overtime or benefits. I’ve also witnessed developers in the Vail Valley who have shorted numerous sub-contractors in an outrageous bid to increase profits.
These cases often go unreported as fearful workers are loath to involve state authorities for a variety of reasons, including possibly being blackballed and missing out on future work. It also might require hiring a lawyer, with no promise of recouping lost wages or legal fees. And some employers can get quite contentious, threatening retaliatory legal action of their own.
Some cases have been daylighted in the local press, and the height of hypocrisy is an employer who uses politics or “onerous” state or local regulations as an excuse for stiffing workers. Or worse yet, businessmen who benefit from cheap immigrant labor like President Donald Trump at his various resorts and hotels but then engage in anti-immigrant politics. The focus in on fixing immigration policies should be on the businesses that create the demand for immigrant labor.
As tragic as the Mollie Tibbetts murder in Iowa is, her alleged killer – an undocumented worker from Mexico – isn’t even in the country if an Iowa farm doesn’t hire him. The vast majority of immigrant workers – which really includes all of us unless you’re Native American – are here for a better life, obeying our laws more stringently on average than resident Americans.
And that includes law-breaking business owners who are creating the demand for immigrant laborers and then violating labor laws by engaging in wage theft.
Over the 2017-18 holidays, our church asked my family to help a local family impacted by wage theft. An employer withheld three months of wages and left the family high and dry during the difficult holiday period in an area of the country that’s already prohibitively expensive to live in. These actions by unscrupulous employers have dire consequences.
I understand how difficult it can be to run a business in Eagle County, especially with tighter credit restrictions in recent years. But there is no excuse for cheating workers out of wages, and anyone taking advantage of immigrant labor in the current political climate is doubly culpable.
I urge anyone who feels victimized by wage theft to read a story I wrote on the topic for the Vail Daily on Tuesday, and also to reach out to Catholic Charities for assistance in pursuing a claim. Contact Catholic Charities in Eagle County by calling (970) 949-0405 or emailing Catholic Charities’ Megan McGee Bonta at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catholic Charities seeks help in combating growing number of wage-theft cases
Megan McGee Bonta of Catholic Charities in Eagle County has numerous heart-wrenching tales of local working families stiffed on pay and forced into near insolvency by unscrupulous employers. It’s called wage theft, and Bonta says that despite the booming local economy and record-low unemployment, it’s on the rise in 2018.
The community integration services coordinator for Catholic Charities in Eagle County, Bonta says the number of individual cases of wage theft reported to her organization is up 66 percent so far in 2018 compared to all of 2017, and that the dollar amount reported is up 41 percent.
Catholic Charities tries to help workers recover unpaid wages, either by directly contacting and negotiating with employers or helping workers file small-claims court actions or complaints with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Bonta says this is not just a trend impacting undocumented workers, although that group is increasingly being targeted. But she also tells the story of several legally-employed H2B workers who were told they’d be paid in full when they returned from Mexico after renewing their visas. Then the employer cancelled the visas once the workers were out of the country.
“So then these legal immigrants were stuck in Mexico, away from their families who were here in Eagle County – some of the family members with medical emergencies, young kids, and so they got stranded trying to go through the legal process,” Bonta said.
But more often the employees aren’t seasonal workers here on a visa, she adds.
“Most of the victims and the families that we’re working with aren’t temporary workers in our area,” Bonta said. “These are families that have lived here for a long time – five, 10, 20, 30 years. These are families in our local economy and families with kids in our schools.”
In the middle of a harsh Colorado winter, going without pay for even a month can mean hard choices between paying rent, buying groceries or keeping the utilities going.
“They get at risk of homelessness and eviction,” Bonta said. “You can imagine a family missing a paycheck for three months when they’re working fulltime, what that does, so a lot of the assistance these families get in emergencies is not because they’re not working, it’s because they’re not getting paid for their work.”
This time of year, landscaping and construction companies are among some of the worst offenders, illegally withholding pay until projects are completed, Bonta says, or failing to pay overtime wages and misclassifying workers as contract employees. But restaurants, lodging companies and other service providers are also engaged in wage theft, she adds.
A 2014 Colorado Fiscal Institute study puts the amount of statewide unpaid wages at $750 million a year, with wage theft four times more prevalent than robbery and burglary, according to a 2016 report by the Denver nonprofit Towards Justice. Bonta adds that for every individual who comes forward with a case of wage theft, there are typically five unpaid coworkers.
“If we had robberies or burglaries or auto theft of that amount in our area, there would be an uproar and a lot of resources dedicated to it, and we’re doing this with few resources,” Bonta said. “That’s why we need both resources and awareness to try and combat this.”
In April, the Wage Theft Transparency Act of 2017 started making public all the final determinations of violations of wage and hour laws made by the Colorado Division of Labor Standards and Statistics.
As of the end of July, Catholic Charities in Eagle County has taken on 20 individual clients with wage-theft cases claiming $70,500 in unpaid wages in 2018. That compares to 12 cases and $50,000 in all of 2017. The heated national debate over immigration and the anti-immigrant policies coming out of the Trump White House have added to the problem, Bonta says.
“We’ve seen more blatant, ‘I’m not going to pay you because you’re an immigrant, documented or not,’ versus when it was more a dispute over credit or paying at the end of a project versus immediately,” Bonta said. “We have seen some more blatant cases this last year.”
The Wage Theft Transparency Act provides a tool for consumers and workers to see what companies are engaged in wage theft, both locally and around the state and nation (because some of the companies are based in other states), but Marian McDonough, regional director of Catholic Charities, Western Slope, says this list is by no means comprehensive.
“Because of this new law we are being more conscientious about referring people in that direction, but prior to that we were often just giving people information as far as small claims court … so it didn’t get to that level,” McDonough said. “Some of our biggest offenders haven’t been referred to the Department of Labor; they’re not going to be on that list.”
Since the new law went into effect in April of 2017 there are four local companies on the Wage Theft Transparency Act list (pdf) — Resort App (Vail), Lone Star Security (Avon), Carpentry Inc. (Edwards) and Elevation Vail Partners II dba Pendulum Restaurant (Vail). Pendulum is the only local business listed so far for 2018.
Bonta says it takes six months for the Department of Labor to begin an investigation and even longer for a company to be listed after a final determination. So far none of the companies she is investigating for her 20 clients in 2018 has landed on the state list, which runs through the end of June.
Dylan Roberts, a deputy district attorney in Eagle who represents Eagle and Routt counties in the State Legislature, says he’d be willing to take a look at the 2017 law next session if he’s reelected in November.
“I agree that there are problems out there, and I would be willing to work with Catholic Charities and other organizations in the lead-up to the upcoming 2019 legislative session to identify either legislative fixes to the 2017 law and/or increased legislative oversight of the Department of Labor to comply with the law,” Roberts said in an email.
“Further, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I look forward to working on this issue. Wage theft is one of the most pervasive problems faced by lower-income families, and the state has an obligation to protect our most vulnerable from abusive practices.”
To report a case of wage theft in Eagle County, or to offer assistance to families impacted by the growing problem, call (970) 949-0405 or email Catholic Charities’ Bonta at email@example.com.