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El Paso Takes a Sharper Approach to Dealing with Wage Theft

The El Paso City Council is moving forward with plans to further crack down on companies that deny pay to their workers. Only one council member voted “no” to add tougher language to an ordinance that was initially passed last year.

Under the new version of the law, which takes effect immediately, companies will be denied permits to work in the city if they have been previously convicted of wage theft. The original version of the ordinance simply denied city contracts to companies with such a history. That method of dealing with wage theft is similar to an ordinance passed by the Houston City Council in 2013.

Prior to the most recent vote, the El Paso Times Editorial Board took a strong position in favor of the tougher language:

The amendments will broaden the reach of companies covered by the ordinance. Basically, any company with a final court adjudication of wage theft will have a clear choice: pay what they owe to workers, or lose the city permits or licenses they need to continue operating in El Paso.

Wage theft comes in a variety of forms – not paying the minimum wage or for overtime, improperly classifying workers as independent contractors, simply refusing to pay money the workers have earned.

It can occur virtually anywhere, but some workers are more vulnerable, particularly immigrants. Domestic workers, restaurant employees and workers at small construction firms are among the most frequent victims of wage theft.

Wage theft is illegal, but enforcement mechanisms often lack in effectiveness. The ordinance amendments before City Council can provide a much-needed tool for protecting workers.

According to KVIA Television, about two dozen people went to the city council meeting to ask their representatives to approve the new ordinance.

"El Paso does not need employers who are thieves," said UTEP Professor Kathy Staudt. Supporters also pointed out that convicting a company of wage theft is a long and difficult process – a fact presented to assuage fears that some companies might miss out on work even if they are not guilty of anything. Council Representative Michiel Noe, the lone "no" vote, said the new language was a bit like debtors’ prison. "I don't want to prevent people from working for a crime they may not have committed," Noe said.

Others argued that there is plenty of due process built into the new language.

"This is only targeting companies who have been ordered by an appellate court to pay wages due to employees and still don't pay," said El Paso resident Chris Benoit.

Meantime, Democrats and Republicans in the Texas Legislature have said more needs to be done statewide to combat wage theft. It is fair to say there have been mixed results at the Texas Capitol over the last several years.

Back in 2011, lawmakers passed a bill by Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, making it easier for police across the state to arrest employers who don’t pay their workers. That bill also closed a critical loophole that allowed employers to avoid criminal theft of services charges by making a minimal payment to their workers. That measure was signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

But last year, lawmakers failed to pass bipartisan legislation that would have created a searchable database of employers convicted of stealing the wages of their workers. "Wage theft is bad for good business," said Rep. Mary González, the author of that bill. González, D-Clint, said honest business owners cannot compete with employers who illegally cut their costs by stealing the wages of their employees.

Rep. González said the proposal is personal for her for a variety of reasons, including the fact that her mother runs a trucking company where she goes after business through competitive bidding and still manages to pays employees on time. Doing so is extra difficult when other businesses are cheating, González said.

González secured reelection by beating a Democratic primary challenger during a tough campaign earlier this month. It's a safe bet she will file a similar bill in the 2017 session of The Legislature.

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