In this economy, Latinos are most frequent victims of wage theft

Latinos protest at US Capitol
Getty Images

Wage theft is epidemic and it hits Latino workers the hardest. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that wage theft across America is costing workers $50 billion per year. Compare that to the robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts in the FBI’s uniform crime report, which cost victims an estimated $14 billion over the same period, and you can see that calling wage theft an epidemic is no exaggeration.

Paying workers below the legal minimum wage, not paying for overtime hours worked, forcing workers to work off-the-clock or, for workers on federal contracts, not paying the proper wage rate for their occupation, are just some of the sleights-of -hand that employers engage in to cheat workers. Although all of these maneuvers are illegal, they are rarely punished.

{mosads}In a survey conducted of three metropolitan areas with high Latino populations, the largest percentage of workers who suffer minimum wage and overtime law violations are Latinos. And amongst foreign-born Latino workers the problem is even worse.

I see this first hand almost every day. I work with low wage federal contract workers who are standing up for their rights. I also see how for Latino workers the problem is hard to avoid. More than half of the government contract workers organizing under the banner of Good Jobs Nation are Latino. These are the folks who cook meals and clean the buildings for senators at the U.S. Capitol and high ranking military officials at the Pentagon. They sew troops’ uniforms, and transport military equipment at the largest ports.

For a worker living from paycheck-to-paycheck in low-wage occupations, with no benefits, healthcare or paid leave, getting shorted on wages can mean not being able to afford medication or falling behind on rent and utilities. The victims, of course are not just the workers. Their dependents also bear the brunt of this illegal behavior.

Even when workers know their rights and stand up to defend them, the current enforcement system does little to reward their courage.

Take Alba Morales, a cafeteria worker at the U.S. Senate. In January she and several of her coworkers filed a wage theft report with the Department of Labor. The DOL investigated and found that her employer had cheated its workers out of over a million dollars, but awarded Alba and the other workers who were brave enough to come forward only small amounts of back pay — in Alba’s case $240 even though she had worked at the Senate for ten years.

In fact, we have found wage theft or other labor law violations at every one of the 30 or so worksites where we have contacted federal contract workers around Washington, DC. If wage theft is happening here, in our nation’s capital and right under the noses of those charged with enforcing our laws, then it’s likely happening everywhere. Worst of all, these violations are being committed by employers that profit from taxpayer dollars.

That’s why we are beginning a nationwide effort to help workers on federal contracts put a stop to wage theft. Through a new bilingual hotline (1-844-729-3247) and a Facebook Messenger tool we hope to inform workers of their rights, and help them with file complaints with federal enforcement agencies if they are facing wage theft or other labor violations. 

Unfortunately, helping workers come forward is only a part of the solution to the problem of wage theft on federal contracts. We also have to stop known legal violators from continuing to receive taxpayer funded business. 

In 2014 President Obama signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order to require federal contractors to report their labor law violators to the government before being awarded a contract, but a Texas court accepted the contractors’ arguments that this common-sense measure would cause “irreparable harm,” while ignoring the real suffering caused by wage theft to workers and their families and blocked the Order the day before it was due to go into effect. Good Jobs Nation will keep campaigning until this unjust decision is overruled.

The truth is Latinos play a vital role in the nation’s economy and their labor generates profits for American businesses. But if Latinos are to have a fair chance of achieving the American Dream of getting ahead by hard work, their employers and the federal government must acknowledge that wage theft is a widespread and serious and do everything in their power to put an end to the problem.

Fabián is the Communications Director for Good Jobs Nation, a campaign of federal contract workers working to end the Federal governments role as America’s leading low wage job creator. 

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill
Tags Barack Obama Change To Win Strategic Organizing Center economy latinos United States Wage theft Washington D.C.
See all Hill.TV See all Video