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Wage Theft Indictment in El Paso

El Paso has become the second city in Texas where an employer has been arrested and indicted on charges of wage theft. The Texas Observer reports that El Paso is the only city in the state that has an active wage theft task force. It includes the police and sheriff's departments as well as the County Attorney and District Attorney's offices.

From the Observer:

“It’s huge because we’re finally treating the stealing of someone’s wages the same way we treat someone stealing from Target or Albertsons or [any] store,” says Jed Untereker, an attorney with Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project who represented the employee. “The consequence for an unscrupulous employer is you’re going to be thrown in jail if you don’t pay your workers what they’re owed.”

Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, told Construction Citizen that he's happy to see his hometown going after these criminal employers, but he knows the problem is much bigger and the efforts need to be ramped up.

"It's just such a common practice that I felt strongly that we needed to do something about it," he said. In 2011, he wrote the bill that closed a loophole that made it easy for employers to get away with paying people only partially or, in some cases, not at all for their labor. "The honest employers out there shouldn't get the black eye that they are getting because of some rotten apples," Senator Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also pointed out that there's a ripple effect in the local economy when workers don't get paid. "Maybe the landlord doesn't get the monthly rent. Maybe the grocery store on the corner is not getting paid for some of the groceries," he said. "It's some thing that Texas needs to do - send a message that this is not going to be tolerated."

He had hoped that additional legislation could be passed this session to further crack down on the problem, including a strong prohibition on retaliation by employers when workers report wage theft. But, with less than a month to go in this session, that does not seem likely. "People at the local level need to make full use of the laws that have already been passed," Rodriguez said.

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