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May-Day Mayday: Wage Theft on the Rise

April 29, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday (May 1) is May Day; it is also International Labor Day. Workers and their advocates in Texas are marking the occasion with a 'mayday' cry - calling attention to the plight of the state's most vulnerable wage-earners.

Brownsville attorney Kathryn Youker provides legal aid to construction, restaurant, and domestic workers, among others, who are victims of "wage theft." She says one of the most common methods of cheating workers is to misclassify them - such as treating permanent full-time employees as contract workers. Misclassification, she adds, is increasingly rampant because employers have so much to gain.

"They don't have to pay unemployment insurance; they don't have to pay their employer share of federal taxes. And workers have absolutely no rights as independent contractors."

Youker says U.S. workers are cheated out of billions of dollars each year because of misclassification. In the Texas House of Representatives, HB 2989 would crack down on the practice in the construction industry. Authored by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Port Arthur), the measure has received bipartisan approval. It would boost tax revenues and curtail the hiring of undocumented workers, while protecting wages and benefits.

Located in one of the country's poorest regions with the highest concentration of migrant farm workers, Youker's organization, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, has helped employees fight wage theft for decades. She says growers have long manipulated their employment structures, to save money and minimize their legal responsibilities when hiring.

"And now, this same scheme has migrated to all these other low-wage industries. And they're just so wrong – I mean, the employers, they just do it."

She says immigrant workers are the most vulnerable to wage theft because they typically can't afford to risk what little money they're making, or to alienate their employers. Also, with English as their second language, Youker explains immigrants have a harder time understanding their rights, such as those afforded to them by the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

"And they don't realize that these labor laws, they protect all workers - regardless of your immigration status - because if you have two classes of workers, that will bring down the working conditions for everyone."

Immigrants working under temporary visas are reluctant to confront employers when their visas are dependent upon their specific jobs, according to Youker. The Texas Workforce Commission enforces wage violations but, with only about a dozen investigators, it can take as long as a year for the agency to begin looking into a claim.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX