Jul 28, 2018
On Wednesday, March 7, The Department of Employment Services (DOES) held its annual performance oversight hearing before the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, chaired by Councilmember-at-large Elissa Silverman. The hearing began at 10 a.m. and lasted well into the late afternoon. Around 100 people attended, representing various workforce areas, such as construction, security, and food service. Israel Romero, a longtime TUWDC board member, submitted his testimony.
The committee wasn’t able to hear his comments directly, since no Spanish interpretation services were provided. This lack of language access by the city for the people it serves was an example of some of the very issues Romero’s testimony highlights. Romero spoke of his personal experiences and observations about wage theft, an epidemic in which unaccredited “contractors” hire construction workers to complete a job and then take off with the client’s money, robbing the laborers of their cut. According to a report issued by DOES at the request of JustPay, a workers’ rights coalition, in the past year 433 formal complaints were filed for wage theft, making it by far the largest source of complaint among wage issues.
Yet this already high statistic of reported cases is surely lower than the true number of wage theft victims, due to the many barriers facing those wishing to take formal action through the Department of Employment Services. “There are no Spanish speakers at the DOES entrance,” Romero states. “There also aren’t any materials that explain the process. The biggest barrier is the demand for an identifying document, like a driver’s license, in order to speak with someone or enter the building. If a person doesn’t have this document, they can’t speak with anybody, or even go inside.” Even if a victim of wage theft manages to file their case, Romero adds, “the investigation process takes a long time and there is no communication with the people who are making the complaint.” In the past year, almost half of wage theft investigations remained unresolved even after more than 180 days. This confusion and delay means many cases are abandoned altogether.
Unlike other theft, wage theft isn’t considered to be in the domain of the police, and even if it were, many workers would be afraid to have contact with law enforcement, which is associated with ICE. Police consider wage theft a civil issue, but few lawyers are willing to take on cases that deal with relatively small amounts of money, often only a few hundred dollars at a time. Nor can the help of a lawyer always bring justice. Romero recounts once working three days without pay and seeking legal counsel, only to find that his fraudulent employer had already left the country. There was nothing to be done.
Romero believes wage payment enforcement is ultimately the responsibility of the city’s Department of Employment Services. City Council reports that letters of violation were sent out to contractors in 66% of reported wage theft cases, but there were no on-site investigations, and the repercussions currently in place for perpetrators are clearly not strict enough to effectively deter theft. While optimistic about how the hearing went, Romero also notes that he was present at a similar hearing a year ago, with no sign of real change in the interim. He encourages DC residents to contact the Department of Employment Services to request more serious action to stop the theft suffered by countless local workers on a routine basis.