South Texas Civil Rights Project Fights “Wage Theft”

By Nick Braune

Each year billions of dollars are ripped off from workers, through all sorts of little scams. It is very common apparently, when workers leave a job, for their employers to “forget” to pay for the last week or so of work. And employers scam billions of dollars annually by underpaying overtime hours. Whether lots of money is involved or not so much, it is still a fairness issue, and wage theft hurts the wage-earners, their dependents and the community. Checking online, I found several organizations fighting against wage theft nationally; it is a huge problem.

One new attorney working on this issue is in the Rio Grande Valley. I met him at the groundbreaking for the new South Texas Civil Rights Project (STCRP) office planned in Alamo. (Their current offices are getting too crowded at Cesar Chavez Road and Business 83.) The lawyer is Elliott Tucker, and he recently joined STCRP after graduating from Georgetown University and spending a year or so with another non-profit organization. I asked for an interview.

Braune: When I spoke to you at the groundbreaking, I was interested in your project and have since looked online and found that this is not a small issue at all. Could you please tell the readers a bit about what you are doing.

Tucker: I am the employment justice attorney for the South Texas Civil Rights Project, where my job is to find both legal and non-legal solutions to the rampant problem of wage theft in the Valley. In Hidalgo County and Cameron County, we offer monthly legal clinics for victims of wage theft. At these clinics we give a brief presentation on labor law, conduct a legal intake, and then provide legal orientation to the appropriate non-profit or government agency.

I am working closely with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, LUPE, and the Start Center. For instance, in close coordination with LUPE, I have developed a Justice of the Peace workshop which empowers workers to file their own small claims lawsuits. The goal of this project is to both empower workers through civic participation and also ensure that all victims of wage theft have legal redress.

Braune: What are the most common offenses you are expecting to find?

Tucker: Two patterns are perhaps the most common. Simply stringing along the workers, telling them it will be another week or so before they will be paid…

Braune: …a little later and a little later….

Tucker: Yes, and the second most common one is just as simple, paying the workers less than minimum wage.

Greed and ignorance are the driving force behind wage thefts. The range of excuses for non-payment runs the gamut from “But I didn’t get paid either” to “You didn’t do a good job.” However, under federal and state law, an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay. No excuses.

More disturbingly, in the Valley confused individuals feel that just because a worker does not have a social security number, they can pay that worker whatever they want. Oftentimes these individuals feel they are doing the worker a favor and get offended when the reality of the law comes barking. However, state and national law set the wage rate for all human beings, regardless of immigration status.

Another common problem is willful ignorance. Many reputable businesses hire an under-capitalized subcontractor to do the recruiting, supervision, and (scant) payment of workers who have questionable immigration status. It’s an assumed win-win for the business because they get labor on the cheap and they think they can plead ignorance. However, state and national law was drafted with this trick in mind, and workers can often demand wages from both entities as “joint employers.”

Braune: Do undocumented workers hesitate to come forward with complaints?

Tucker: Yes, but they should have far less fear. Although some build up unnecessary worries in their minds, there are a good number of protections in place if they do come forward.

Braune: What further developments do you envision? — Lawsuits? New state laws?

Tucker: My first goal is to educate low wage workers in the Valley about their rights, so all workers know the basic minimum wage and, if violated, know they have legal recourse regardless of their immigration status. Education is the key. However, education cannot open the eyes of the willfully blind, so I do anticipate lawsuits being necessary in the cases of extreme and systemic abuse.

As far as new state laws go, given the current political climate in Texas, I am not optimistic about new laws to address wage theft. Unless there is a fundamental shift in the political winds in Austin, I view my project as focusing primarily on education and litigation, not pushing legislative reform.

[This article also appeared June 23, 2010 in the Mid-Valley Town Crier]

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