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Business and Labor Join Forces in Push to Crack Down on Wage Theft in Texas

Construction firms and labor advocates alike have now told state lawmakers they are in favor of a proposal under consideration at the Texas Capitol to create a searchable database of employers convicted of stealing the wages of their workers.

Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, told the Texas House Business and Industry Committee during a public hearing that the current version of her legislation, House Bill 94, is the result of collaboration with business interests, workers’ rights advocates and Republican lawmakers who want to protect ethical employers and workers as well.

Former Republican Rep. John Davis, R-Clear Lake, helped the El Paso-area Democrat craft this legislation along with Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, and Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston.

"Wage theft is bad for good business," González said. She pointed out that honest businesses cannot compete with companies that cut their costs by illegally stealing the wages of their employees. González said the proposal is personal for her for a variety of reasons, including the fact that her mother runs a trucking company where she goes after business through competitive bidding and still manages to treat her workers with respect and pays them on time. Doing so, however, is extra difficult when competitors are cheating, González said.

"This bill tries to stop the problem before it even happens," González said. It’s not too often lawmakers have a chance to pass legislation in a proactive way rather than reacting to problems, she added.

There are many protections for ethical businesses built into the legislation, González said. Not only is it quite difficult to be found guilty of wage theft in the first place, but when that happens this bill would make sure companies would have access to a six-month appeals process before they would be listed in the database for all to see.

Gary Scharrer, who speaks for the Associated General Contractors of Texas, said the highway and bridge builders of the state fully support this bill. Builders covered by the federal Davis-Bacon Act are exempt from it, which is just another one of the protections for law-abiding employers in this proposal, he said. "House bill 94 seeks to target unscrupulous employers who abuse or shortchange workers," Scharrer said. He called it a worthy goal.

The committee also listened to testimony from Maxie Gallardo, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Workers Defense Project, who told them about the experience of a man who was cheated out of thousands of dollars when he worked for a subcontractor on a state-owned project in Austin. That man and his co-workers, she said, were owed about $60,000. They were consistently underpaid and any wages they did actually receive were almost always paid late.

The general contractor on that job, the owner, and the employees had no idea at the start of the project that the subcontractor had a history of wage theft, Gallardo said. The kind of database authorized by González’s legislation would create transparency in a scenario like that, Gallardo said.

A representative from the Texas Workforce Commission testified that the agency cannot create a database like this unless the Legislature acts.

After listening to the testimony of various stakeholders, Fort Worth Democratic Rep. Ramon Romero and Houston Republican Rep. Allen Fletcher – both business owners – agreed that this needs to move forward.

“They believe their bosses that the check is coming next week,” Rep. Romero said of the hard-working Texans who pour their blood and sweat into the monuments of our cities. “Those are some incredibly loyal people,” Romero said. The proposed database would serve as a “siren,” signaling to employers that they should “take care of those that actually want to take care of you," he said.

As of now, the committee has not voted on the bill.

Construction Citizen will continue to track the progress of this legislation.