From ElPasoTimes.com, Aaron Bracamontes \ El Paso Times, 24 Jun 2011.
El Paso, TX — One of every five low-wage workers in El Paso makes less than minimum wage, while close to 80 percent earn less than $10 an hour, according to a first-of-its-kind study released on Thursday.
“El Paso’s Newest Crime Wave: A Wage Theft Epidemic in the Borderlands” was released Thursday at the Border Network for Human Rights Center by the three nonprofit groups that commissioned it.
“The numbers show that wage theft is very prevalent,” said Maria Cristina Morales, a professor from Texas A&M University, who conducted the groundbreaking study with Eric Murillo, founder and co-organizer of the Retail Workers Rights Committee. “It was not something we had to work very hard to find.”
Volunteers from the three advocacy groups surveyed more than 250 low-income workers on streets, at bus stops and in community meetings.
A low-income worker is an employee who makes less than the “livable wage.” In El Paso, the “livable wage” is $7.26 an hour for a single person and $15.26 for an adult with a single child.
“As the number of dependents goes up, the livable wage gets higher,” said Morales.
She presented the study results during a joint news conference hosted by the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, the Labor Justice Committee and the Border Network for Human Rights.
The study also found that nearly two-thirds of low-wage workers do not receive overtime pay.
“A lot of times, these workers don’t even know what overtime pay is,” Morales said.
The three groups said that low-income workers are vulnerable to wage theft; that’s when employers withhold payments.
Some cases of wage theft occur when employees are misrepresented as independent contractors, which denies them certain rights and benefits.
“This idea of not paying the workers who work overtime is more common than you think,” Border Network member Fernando Garcia said. “Hopefully, somebody will listen and things will start to change.”
Miguel Miranda, a member of the Border Network for Human Rights, said he could recall one man’s tragic but common story.
“He was hired to put up lights and decorations around a house,” Miranda said. “At the end, the owner said, ‘I don’t like the way it looks — I’m not paying you.’ That abuse is constant, and our people are suffering.”
The study was done to bring awareness about wage theft in El Paso.
The local human-rights groups want something done locally, said Christopher Benoit, a lawyer for the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project.
“Change is slow in Washington and Austin, but we can make a change here with local ordinances,” Benoit said.
State legislators have already taken action on the problem.
The Wage Theft Bill, which was recently signed by Gov. Rick Perry, makes it easier for police to arrest and for prosecutors to charge employers who cheat workers out of their pay.
The wage theft study proposes language that can be used in any local ordinance.
“We provide a criminal and civil option, depending on what lawmakers want to do,” Benoit said. “We can use code compliance officers to deal with complaints.”
The study suggests that any penalties should be harsh enough to discourage employers from withholding wages.
Over the next few months, the advocacy groups will try to meet with local lawmakers to try to get an ordinance passed, Benoit said.
The results of the survey will help make the groups’ case, he said.
“At this point, we have only had some conversations with lawmakers, but nothing major,” Benoit said. “The main thing was that local leaders have said to bring them some numbers, bring the smoking gun.”
Of the individuals surveyed for the study, the workers who were paid the lowest were in the agriculture and domestic labor industries.
Every agriculture worker surveyed was paid below minimum wage, as were 43 percent of domestic workers.
Even the legal minimum wage, set at $7.25, is usually not enough money.
“We have large families here on the border,” Morales said. “The average family has more than one child.”
A low-wage worker may be afraid to speak against an unscrupulous employer for fear of retaliation, said Lidia Cruz, a member of the Labor Justice Committee who was a victim herself.
“A lot of us who have suffered are heads of households,” Cruz said. “There is a lot of pressure to keep a job to support our families.”
Cruz filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor in 2009 to recover thousands of dollars in unpaid wages from a former employer. But the statute of limitations lasts three years, so every day she had to wait for an investigator, she lost a day’s worth of pay she could recover. She eventually gave up her claim.
Within the next few months, the groups plans to present the study to the El Paso City Council and the County Commissioners Court, Benoit said.
It may take some time, but the advocacy groups are determined to make a difference, at least on a local level.
“This report was done by our three organizations,” Benoit said. “But it is going to take cooperation from more organizations to make a change. We are talking human-rights groups, church leaders and lawmakers.”
Aaron Bracamontes may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6156.