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Houston Moves Forward With Wage Theft Crackdown While Private Sector Solution Emerges [VIDEO]

Despite concerns from some council members about a “cleaner process” for going after employers who cheat workers out of their pay, the chairman of the Houston City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday pledged an “aggressive” timetable to enacting a tough wage theft ordinance.

Committee Chairman Ed Gonzalez held a public hearing on the proposal that included testimony from workers who have been cheated and a construction executive who says he’s “ashamed” that the practice of stealing wages often happens in his industry.  Gonzalez said the concerns “are not falling on deaf ears.”  He said his office has worked with the city attorney to craft something that is workable and will make headway, even if the proposal might need some changes before it can be adopted.  “It’s not good enough to say you can’t stop everyone so you should do nothing,” Gonzalez said.  “We have to address this.”

A packed council chamber was filled with workers' rights advocates who held up letters to spell out “Stop Wage Theft."  They and other supporters of the proposed ordinance stood the entire time testimony was given.

“The problem of wage theft is a very real one, but it has proven to be difficult for us to address,” said Houston City Attorney David Feldman.  As he laid out the details of the proposal, he said those who fall prey to wage theft are often the “weakest members of society.”  He noted that many times workers have no idea what remedies are available to them.  That’s despite the fact that Texas has a fairly comprehensive system for dealing with wage theft both civilly and criminally.  Right now, a worker who’s had his or her wages stolen can do one or all of three things: complain to the District Attorney’s office, file suit in small claims court, or file a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission.  However, according to Feldman, no one at the Houston Police Department or in the Harris County DA’s office could recall the last time someone filed a criminal complaint about wage theft in Houston.

The way the ordinance would work, as drafted, is that the city would deny business permits to any company found to have stolen the wages of its workers.  The city would also put companies on a watch list if a complaint had been filed against the business, with the idea being those companies should not be awarded city contracts.  If the company was found to be in violation, they’d be denied a business permit for two years.  The whole point is to make it very difficult to do business in Houston if a company engages in wage theft.  “They certainly shouldn't be doing business with the city,” Chairman Gonzalez said.

The law would also create a new position in city government.  The person in the new position of Wage Theft Coordinator would be responsible for managing and monitoring the watch list, and for working to ensure that no one guilty of wage theft is awarded a city contract.  “The watch list is for internal purposes,” Feldman explained. 

City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston Police Chief, said that he was concerned the process might be a little too complex to be effective.  “If it’s theft, let’s pursue it as theft,” he said.  To that, Feldman pointed to the fact that wage theft is very rarely reported to law enforcement, but the Workforce Commission often receives complaints.

Several workers testified that the ordinance was needed not only to help people receive the pay they have earned but also to hold companies accountable for their misdeeds.  Each speaker was limited to one minute each in which to offer statements to the committee, who could then ask each speaker any follow-up questions they had.

Richard Shaw with the Harris County AFL-CIO said the ordinance, if nothing else, would serve as a deterrent when companies consider withholding the pay of their employees.  Many of these employers will stop “once they realize that someone is going to hold them accountable,” he said.  He concluded by referring to some of the earlier testimony from workers:  “For somebody who lives day to day, week to week – we saw this lady who has been waiting over a year for her money – workers need their money – usually at the end of the day, but by the end of the week is really nice.  They can’t work any other way.  This ordinance will help stop that.”

Reverend Ron Lister said the need is now so the council should act now.  He stated:  “Let us not send them through a bureaucratic process where they have to wait for years and months to get paid.... Let us rise and appeal to the highest level of our morality, and the deepest level of our spirituality, and do justice.  These people cannot afford to wait weeks and months for a check. They have children, they have bills to pay – like us.”

Stan Marek, President and CEO of Marek Brothers Systems, told the committee that he was certainly in favor of the proposed ordinance but that much more needs to be done.  “This is happening in my industry.  I am ashamed of it,” Marek said.  He told the council that not only should government take swift action against unethical companies, but the private sector also needs to do more.  “We have a public-private partnership of labor, management, associations in the contracting business.  We have a program called C3,” Marek said.  He described the Construction Career Collaborative (C3), which we've profiled many times on Construction Citizen, as a partnership designed to create a sustainable workforce in construction.

Marek said the city council should move to ensure that all projects that involve tax money should adhere to C3’s principles of paying by the hour, offering craft training and safety training, and offering a real career path.  “This is a huge problem for the city and for the state.  If we don’t do something about it, we won’t have a sustainable labor force for the future,” Marek said.  To that, City Councilman Jerry Davis said he had met with representatives from the C3 organization and thought it was a great program that needs to be embraced.

You can listen to some of the public comments in the 5 minute video below.

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