The first reported conviction of a contractor guilty of wage theft was handed down by a jury in El Paso this past week. The case against the employer was pursued under a law passed in 2011 by a local lawmaker who has made stamping out wage theft one of his personal causes.
The victim, Esteban Rangel, said he was owed $2,295 by the owner of Sun City Roofing, John Najera. Najera did not have any prior convictions, which is why the 180 day jail sentence announced in court was reduced to three months of probation. In addition, Najera must pay a fine of $5,000 and Rangel will receive $2,295 in restitution.
The lawmaker who pushed for passage of the state’s new wage theft law, Sen. Jose Rodríguez, said the conviction is an important step forward and will hopefully send a message to other unethical business owners. The bill he successfully championed in 2011 allows for criminal prosecution for wage theft if – with the intent to avoid payment – an employer fails to make full payment after receiving notice.
"This conviction is a landmark in the fight against wage theft," Rodríguez said. "Unscrupulous employers who intentionally steal from employees now know there are real consequences for robbing workers of the pay that they're owed,” said the El Paso Democrat.
Theft of wages happens when employers do not pay wages that have been agreed to. One in every five workers experiences this crime, according to Sen. Rodríguez.
We’ve been highlighting the problem on Construction Citizen for years. For example, one worker in Houston said his employer actually pulled a gun on him when he simply asked for the wages he was owed. “I have a gun and you don't know what I can do to you if you guys don't leave,” the employer said, according to witnesses. “This is not going to end well.”
As that story and other cases have shown over the years, wage theft happens to workers who are both documented and undocumented.
Rodríguez pointed out that day laborers in particular are significantly affected “with 50 percent having experienced wage theft.” The impact of this theft is widespread and causes many Texans to be unable to meet their families’ basic needs, he said.
Rangel should be commended, Rodríguez said, for pursuing this precedent-setting case in El Paso. Sen. Rodríguez also thanked El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza for his office's diligence in prosecuting the case, as well as the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, the Labor Justice Committee, and other key stakeholders for their advocacy on behalf of hard-working El Pasoans.