Texas tightens wage theft law

Texas has a new wage theft law. The new law, which passed as the regular session of the state Legislature drew to a close, closes some of the gaps in existing law that made prosecuting wage theft difficult.

“Wage theft is a widespread problem that occurs when employers fail to pay their employees for their work,” said Emily Tinn of the Workers Defense Project (WDP).” In certain industries like construction, wage theft occurs in epidemic proportions; one in every five Austin, (Texas)  construction workers has been denied payment for their work. Wage theft also undercuts responsible businesses who can’t compete, and hurts working families by forcing them to face unexpected hardships.”

This problem is especially bad for immigrant workers, who some employers think may be reluctant report wage theft because of their immigration status.

Texas has a wage theft law on the books, but loopholes in the current law make it difficult to enforce. Take the case of  Carlos Ovidio Madrid, a construction worker, owed $2,400 by an employer. “I worked hard and did my part but my employer didn’t want to pay what he owed me. It was really hard on my family; I could barely buy food and clothes for my kids,” Ovidio said.

In February 2011, Ovidio took his case to the Austin Police but was told that the police could not take any action because, Ovidio’s employer had paid him a portion of the wages owed. The new law clarifies the Texas Penal Code so that police can take action when an employer does not fully pay a worker for work done.

Wage theft is a problem in other areas of Texas and across the US. In January, the South Texas Civil Rights Project filed a federal law suit on behalf of cleaning service workers working at Family Dollar stores in San Juan near the border with Mexico.  At a demonstration at a Family Dollar store, Martha Sanchez of la Union del Pueblo Entero told the McAllen Monitor, “We have several complaints that came through our office saying that people didn’t get paid. The company also hires them to do contract labor and ends up paying them less than the minimum wage. And they never get paid overtime.”

New wage theft laws recently went into effect in New York and Seattle, and in San Francisco, workers in May kicked off a new citywide campaign to combat wage theft with a rally to support a new anti-wage theft city ordinance.

Despite the loopholes in the Texas law, WDP, a community organization that assists low-wage workers with employment violations and advocates for fair working conditions, has recovered nearly $750,000 in unpaid wages since 2002. But changes to the law were needed, which led WDP to work with lawmakers to draft the the changes.

“This bill clarifies that employers who shirk their responsibilities can be charged with criminal theft of service,” Tinn said. “Prosecutors and law enforcement officials all over Texas will be able to use this to send a strong message to employers who cheat their workers.”

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