Brothers Axel and Henry Tubac worked for a company installing kitchens. For the first two years they were paid without fail. Then, for six and seven weeks, respectively, their employer stopped paying them.
When they met with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro at New Haven Legal Assistance headquarters Tuesday afternoon, the brothers still hadn’t been paid. They have filed suit against their former employer for wage theft.
“It was just a nightmare what happened to me,” Axel Tubac recalled. “I did not have food. I talked to my boss many, many times. He just seemed like he don’t care. He owes me about $4,000; $500 in overtime that he did not pay.”
If DeLauro has her way, a bill that she is sponsoring will help the Tubac brothers get what is owed to them. And the government will have enough people to crack down on employers who steal from their employees.
DeLauro stopped by the legal aid office on State Street Tuesday to announce that she has introduced the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act; U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State is the Senate sponsor.
“Workers put in their hard work and are deprived of wages that are rightfully theirs,” DeLauro said. “We know that one of the biggest issue we face today is that people are in jobs that don’t pay them enough money, now you compound that with someone who is putting in the hours and is not paid for this work, that’s what this bill addresses.”
The legislation would require that employers not only provide workers with a pay stub, but also disclose the terms of employment. It would allow employees access to employers’ wage and hours records so that they can make sure that they are being paid properly.
In addition to enhanced requirements for employers, the bill penalizes employers who misclassify their workers and make certain that employees receive their final pay check within two weeks of leaving their job. The bill would make it easier for workers to file class action lawsuits.
The bill provides for increase penalties for violating wage and hour laws, including a civil penalty of $2,000 for first-time violators and $10,000 for repeat offenders.
In addition to the increased civil penalties, business owners caught stealing from their employers would be required to pay damages that are in some cases triple the wages owed plus interest. The bill would require that employers pay whatever the original terms of employment were.
Under current federal law, workers can recoup only minimum wages, which means if an employer had agreed to pay a higher wage, the employee can’t recoup stolen pay at that higher wage.
“These fines are directed only at those employers who steal wages from their employees,” DeLauro said. “If a business owner is following the law, it has no effect on them.”
Enforcement Is Key
Determining which employers are following the law is a tricky proposition.
New Haven Legal Assistance attorney James Bhandary-Alexander, who has represented numerous clients in wage theft cases, said while state law is stronger in some ways than federal wage and hour law, tenforcement is a problem. There are about 1,000 federal inspectors enforcing wage and hours laws for the entire country; state labor departments don’t have many more resources. Bhandary-Alexander pointed out while Connecticut has an active labor department, it is underresourced; some states don’t have a labor department at all.
Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) organizer John Lugo, who has been front and center pushing police departments to enforce the criminal provisions of the state and federal wage theft laws, joined Tuesday’s event..
“We feel strongly that wage theft is a theft,” Lugo told DeLauro Tuesday. “If a worker like me goes to Stop & Shop and steals a piece of candy, got detained by the security officer, I will be charged with larceny. But you have repeat offenders like Goodfellas restaurant and ... nothing happens.
Lugo was arrested on Nov. 22 for disturbing the peace during a protest outside of Goodfellas. He argued that the police are more interested in harassing him for protesting rather than going after restaurant owners that are allegedly committing the far more serious crime of stealing from their employees and thumbing their noses at the law.
“Our argument to the police department is ‘Why are you giving us a hard time for exercising our right to boycott? Why don’t you do anything against this guy who is stealing wages from the workers?’”
Lugo said ULA has tried to get the New Haven Police Department to detain wage theft law violators and even encouraged employees to file complaints with the police, but they are often told that wage theft is a civil court issue.
“I know the economy is not good, but employers should not make their money off the backs of the workers,” he said.
Bhandary-Alexander said that wage theft is not just a civil issue, but a criminal one too. He said municipalities and their police departments have been resistant to enforcing wage theft laws because they see such crimes “as something someone else is in charge of.”
“These are criminal statutes,” he said. “The federal statue has a very, very weak criminal provision. The state provision is not very, very weak, but police departments don’t have it in their charge books. A young police officer won’t even know that the statues that protect workers are criminal statues and they have every right to enforce them. There have been long conversations in New Haven and other cities about what is the role of police. Police have a lot of important priorities, but this should be one of them.”
A Long-Term Quest
When asked how the legislation might go over with her Republican colleagues, DeLauro expressed skepticism.
“I’ll be frank, I don’t believe they will” support it, she said. “I’m in Congress with people every day who want to get rid of the prevailing wage [protected wages for laborers, often on government-funded work]. If I had to wait to introduce legislation that would get all of their support, I could never introduce any legislation, because some of these issues they’re not going to be in support of, not in the current climate. You introduce legislation because nothing stays static. Things change.”