Workers demand state protection from wage theft

wage theft is a crime
Working Nevadans gathered to demand an end to wage theft at the Ariba Las Vegas Worker Center on March 12. Photo: Jeniffer Solis

The Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center got its start a little more than a year ago by surveying 300 day laborers. One-third had been a victim of wage theft in the two months prior to the survey.

“It’s almost a ubiquitous phenomenon for low-wage workers, particularly in industries like construction, landscaping, and homecare professionals, daycare, and eldercare,” said Bliss Requa-Trautz, director of the Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center.

While wage theft exists throughout the workforce, it is widespread among the most vulnerable Nevada workers, said Requa-Trautz.

On Tuesday, working Nevadans met with state Labor Commissioner Shannon Chambers at Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center. Victims detailed wage theft experiences in an effort to push for more responsive solutions from the office of the Labor Commissioner.

One man spoke of his experience working for an employer who gradually stopped paying him before threatening to report him to the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I want you to help me get the pay I deserve for the work I did,” said the man in his native Spanish.

Yesenia Mejia, another victim of wage theft, told the commissioner about a case she filed in 2018 for a construction company she said refused to pay for the work of several employees. The Labor Commission refused to take texts, photos, and voicemails as evidence of the theft, said Mejia, and instead told workers to take their complaint to small claims court which would cost money they did not have. In the end the construction company was never penalized despite the various complaints, said Mejia.

“Please help us enforce penalties and get justice. Let them get what they deserve. If they don’t pay us, give them penalties or take their license,” Mejia pleaded.

“We have the name of the contractor and we’ll certainly look at that,” Chambers said.

Similar stories of wage theft are common to her office, said Chambers, adding that cases need to follow a legal process. She said while they try to resolve cases as quickly as possible there are cases that have gone on for two to three years. Any employer who contests a case has the right to take the claim of wage theft to court, extending the case even longer.

But Chambers urged workers to report wage violations to her office. While the commission does not have the authority to shut down businesses, she encouraged laborers to submit as much evidence as they have when making a claim.

“We don’t have the authority to pay a claim,” Chambers told the room. “Unless the employer agrees that he owes you the money, we don’t have any money to pay the claim.”

Workers did not ask the office to pay any claims. What they do want are working policy solutions to protect laborers and their families from wage theft.

At the meeting, workers implored the Labor Commission to take all forms of evidence into account when determining a case, including voicemails, texts, and witnesses. The Office of the Labor Commission has wide discretion to accept evidence in wage claims.

Written notes, texts, audio and other forms of evidence have been rejected in claims submitted to the commission said several people at the meeting.

“We’ll certainly consider all of that [evidence] but at the end of the day if it’s just one version versus another version, it goes through a legal process. A judge decides ‘I believe this person and I don’t believe that person,’” Chambers said.

Other solutions workers are seeking include stronger enforcement of penalties against employers who violate wage laws, more collaboration with the Attorney General to increase prosecution of final orders, more investment on the education of wage laws among both workers and employers, and the improvement of administrative practices of the Office of Labor Commissioner.

Workers also seek to strengthen their relationship with the office of the Labor Commissioner to improve case closure rates and increase assessed penalties.

When the Labor Commissioner makes a determination in favor of a worker, they send that final order to the Attorney General’s office. State statute says those orders need to be acted on within 20 days, but Requa-Trautz said the cases can take years to resolve, sometimes even decades.

“I’m holding documentation from 2008,” Requa-Trautz said, holding a folder. “Another person here this evening, his case has been in collections since 2013. In that respect, people start to feel like the Office of Labor Commission does not mean anything.”

Prosecuting violations of wage theft laws can be extremely difficult, especially in cases with little hard evidence of theft. Requa-Trautz said the Center has faced employers who even change homes and vehicles to escape their legal obligation to pay workers.

“In industries where it’s so rampant, the only way we are going to see an end to that is if we start to see enforcement,” Requa-Trautz said.

Asked when those at the meeting could expect the changes they’re seeking, Chambers apologized and said “six months to a year,” adding before leaving the meeting that any expansive changes would need to be made through the Legislature.

“Let’s make a small evaluation,” said Requa-Trautz to the room, which had erupted at the time frame Chambers gave. Requa-Trautz asked the workers to rate the commissioner’s answers by a show of fingers — one finger for poor to five fingers for excellent. A quick look around the small office space revealed raised fists, tightly closed, with others lifting a single finger.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.

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