WAGE THEFT: State, activists help keep laborers from being ripped off by employers
AURORA | For Aurora day laborer Alvaro Campos, one of the more glaring examples of wage theft was when he cut down a tree for a man with an ax and was supposed to be paid more than $100.

When the work was done, the man paid Campos just $20. 

In Selvin Reyes’ case, he worked for two years at a floral shop, often clocking more than 70 hours a week. But never once did his employer pay him overtime — even though the pay stubs listed hefty weekly hours. 

  • Wage Theft

Those two examples are some of the millions of cases of wage theft around the country, a crime that government officials and advocates say costs workers millions each year. Easy victims are legal and illegal immigrants, either unwilling or unsure of how to report the thefts. In Colorado alone, state investigators handle more than 5,200 wage claims each year. That’s about 430 each month, though advocates for workers say those numbers and the $1.1 million state officials help workers recoup annually amount to just a tiny fraction of the wages workers earn but never see. 

The issue has now snared the attention of state lawmakers who this week passed a bill that would make it easier for state investigators to follow-up on wage theft cases and easier for workers who feel cheated to file a claim. The legislation, Senate Bill 5, passed the state Senate last month and the state House on May 5. It is now waiting on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature. 

State Sen. Jesse Ulibarri, D-Westminster, sponsored the bill and said it was about simple fairness for workers too often taken advantage of. 

“Coloradans who work a hard day’s work, deserve a fair day’s pay,” he said in a statement after the Senate passed the bill. “When folks agree to do the dignified work of picking a field, building a house, or even of showing up and flipping burgers, they should be treated with dignity.” 

The issue is particularly tough for day laborers, who typically work without a contract and often for employers who have they have never met, know little about, and likely won’t meet again. 

At El Centro Humanitario, a nonprofit that works with day laborers in Aurora and Denver, staffers have worked for years with local day laborers, often trying to help them get the money they have earned. 

Marco Nuñez, executive director of El Centro, said wage theft is an especially pointed issue among undocumented workers because those workers are often afraid to report the crime. Nuñez said he and his staff are trying to get the message to workers that, whether they have documentation or not, they can report wage theft and try to get their money. 

“Regardless of status, they do have recourse,” he said. 

In Aurora, the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Dayton Street has long-been a popular place for day laborers to congregate and wait for employers to pick them up. 

On Monday morning, a group of about a dozen workers there said wage theft is always a concern for them. 

Campos, 47, said when a car pulls up and starts asking workers about what skills they have, the workers are also grilling the employer, trying to see if they appear honest. Usually, if a job is just a one-day gig, Campos said the employer is more likely to pay the full wage than a job that lasts a week or two. That’s because the employer will often only pay the worker a little at a time, and tell them they will get the rest after the next day’s work. Too often, they never see the rest of the money, he said. 

Raja Raghunath, an assistant professor at University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, said one of the hurdles day laborers who aren’t paid face is that they don’t have the resources to skip work for a day and go see a lawyer or government officials to report the crime. 

“Most people just suck it up and move on,” he said. 

Still, for workers who don’t have a financial cushion, an employer refusing to pay an amount as little as a few hundred dollars can be a major financial blow. 

“For them, that’s huge,” he said. “It’s the difference between being homeless and having a home.”

Raghunath and his law students, as well as legal staff from the nonprofit towards Justice For All, hold free office hours at El Centro several nights a week where they help workers who have been cheated out of their wages. 

Nuñez said he hopes to expand El Centro’s efforts from their offices in Denver and at East 14th Avenue and Dayton Street in Aurora to the corners where workers congregate. That way, Nuñez said, the legal staff can reach out to workers where they are, without the workers having to miss a day of wages to come report wage theft. 

Nuñez said a common question the workers face is, how could they keep working if they weren’t getting paid? In some cases, Nuñez said workers keep showing up to a job for weeks even though they aren’t getting paid because they feel like they don’t have a choice. 

“They keep working because they think, ‘Well, I already invested all this time,” he said. “‘And if I leave now, I’m not going to get paid at all.’”

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