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Campaign Targets Wage Theft

The Register-Guard
October 3, 2012

A coalition of labor, church and social justice groups raises awareness of workers cheated out of earnings

by Karen McCowan

“Wage theft” will be the topic of a Eugene talk tonight by Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, the Oregon Farmworkers’ Union.

Worker justice organizations use that term to describe the illegal practice of refusing to pay workers all or part of the wages due them.

And it’s a significant problem in Oregon — particularly for the state’s lowest-paid workers — according to sponsors of the free event at Temple Beth Israel.

It occurs each time employers pay less than the minimum wage, don’t pay overtime, steal tips, require employees to work “off the clock” or fail to pay at all, according to the Campaign to Stop Wage Theft, a growing coalition of worker organizations, faith communities and social justice agencies.

One such agency, the Oregon Center for Public Policy, analyzed wage claim data from Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries and found more than 8,500 wage claims totaling more than $24 million between mid-2006 and mid-2012.

But Ramirez and others say that represents only a portion of the state’s shortchanged workers.

He pointed to a PCUN study of Marion County farmworkers’ wages during the 2009 berry season.

“Ninety percent of the workers reported receiving less than minimum wage for picking strawberries and cranberries,” said Ramirez, who was inspired to organize farmworkers after hearing Cesar Chavez speak at his high school in California.

“Lots of people are not reporting it,” he said of the under payments. And the problem goes far beyond agricultural work, he added.

“It’s gotten so bad that PCUN has begun servicing people outside of farm work,” he said. The problem seems to be particularly common in construction jobs such as roofing, painting and drywalling, he said.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who oversees BOLI, agreed that reported cases represent only a portion of the nonpayment problem.

“Jobs are so scarce these days, people are doing everything they can not to rock the boat,” he said in a recent interview.

Though state law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for filing wage and hour complaints, many workers remain intimidated. A Eugene concrete worker who recovered more than $3,600 in unpaid wages through BOLI refused to discuss the case with a reporter, saying he feared the publicity would make it harder for him to find future work.

Meanwhile, a state revenue shortfall forced BOLI to cut its investigative staff in July, meaning the agency will limit its investigations to allegations that employers violated minimum wage, overtime or child labor laws. Previously, the agency also investigated complaints that workers did not receive higher wages, vacation pay or benefits promised by their employers.

In the last five years, BOLI probes “put more than $15 million back in the pockets of workers cheated out of their wages,” Avakian said.

“I think most people are very surprised to hear that we get about 60,000 phone calls a year from Oregonians about their rights on the job, between wage and hour and civil rights questions,” he said, adding that the agency had averaged about 5,000 formal investigations per year.

Avakian said the investigator funding cut is meant to be temporary, and he is hopeful the positions will be restored in the next biennium. Ramirez noted, however, that wage theft also contributes to the state’s budget woes, because taxes can’t be collected on unpaid wages.

Other consequences include Oregon workers losing their homes and family break-ups due to financial stress, he said.

The anti-wage theft campaign aims to beef up penalties for employers who shortchange workers. It is also working with faith communities on a “Thou Shalt Not Steal” campaign to raise public awareness of employers’ duty to pay workers what they’ve earned.

Beyond Toxics, a local pollution watchdog group, led other members of the Lane County Immigration Integration Network in bringing Ramirez to Eugene.

“As an environmental justice nonprofit, we wanted to take a closer look at workers on our farms and in our forests who often come into contact with chemicals,” said Lisa Arkin, Beyond Toxics’ executive director. “We learned that when they want to file a complaint about exposure, employers often threatened not to pay them. This was a reminder that social issues, labor issues and pollution issues often are related.”

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