Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Putting Wage Theft on the Map (Literally)

December 7th, 2009 | Adam Kader

Image: Adam KaderWorkers employed in low-wage and poorly regulated industries (most prominently restaurants, residential construction, domestic cleaning, and mechanics) are confronted with staggering exploitation as employers look to cut corners in today’s recession. Such exploitation includes health and safety violations, discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, firing for participating in union activity, and wage theft—failure to pay workers for work performed, including overtime hours and final pay periods.

To combat this wave of illegality, a Chicago worker center has collaborated with a local university to create a map of law-breaking employers against which they have organized, giving workers and activists a powerful visual tool to bring to politicians and the community.

The Arise Chicago Worker Center has no shortage of evidence for the dire conditions facing Chicago’s low-wage workers, having collaborated with over 2,050 workers in the past seven years.

None of the restaurant workers who have contacted our organization during that time received overtime wages. One of our members seriously injured his back at a construction site, but his employer refused to pay legally required workers’ compensation. One African-American member, who works for a state-funded social service agency, has consistently received paychecks one to three weeks late, for more than two years. A group of candy manufacturers were denied bathroom breaks.

Recently, we spoke with a Guatemalan immigrant car wash worker who works from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, for $5.25 an hour. He does not receive overtime pay and takes home an average of $9 a day in tips. If that weren’t enough, the employer does not provide gloves needed for the work, and illegally deducts the cost of the workers’ required uniform from his paychecks.

With the help of the University of Illinois-Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, Arise has mapped by ward—a political district—the law-breaking employers against which Arise has organized. The maps illustrate law-breaking employers in 43 of Chicago’s 50 wards, affecting workers living in 47 of the wards.

Groups of worker center members plan to meet with their ward aldermen to discuss workplace abuses and enlist support for a city response to the biggest problem facing low-wage workers: wage theft.

Clergy whose congregations are located in the 43 wards will join the workers. Recently, Catholic Bishop John Manz attended a meeting with Alderman Danny Solis in the 25th Ward, where Arise has recorded a dozen labor violations.

Solis committed to introducing the issue to the city council’s Hispanic Caucus, whose wards include great concentrations of Arise membership. Alderman Mary Ann Smith’s office offered to explore legislative strategies that could deny additional business permits to law-breaking employers. Additional meetings and research are planned to determine the best approach to address wage theft in Chicago—which may include a citywide ordinance that could make stealing a worker’s wages treated like other forms of theft.

*This post originally appeared in Labor Notes on December 3, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Adam Kader (www.arisechicago.org) is the director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center, part of the national Interfaith Worker Justice network.

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