Group fighting wage theft succeeds where state fails, but wants tougher laws

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Illustration of workers who have been affected by the "wage theft epidemic." (Illustration by Tiffany Lin a Visiting Assistant Professor of Design and Illustration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.)

Immigrant workers in Nevada are suffering from a wage theft “epidemic,” and the state office charged with protecting workers is ineffective and unresponsive, says Bliss Requa-Trautz, director of the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center.

In March, a group of working Nevadans met with state Labor Commissioner Shannon Chambers at the Workers Center in an effort to push for more responsive solutions from her office.

Since that meeting, every worker at the March meeting received a phone call or an appointment with the state Office of the Labor Commissioner, but not one case was taken up by the office, Arriba staff said at a forum last week.

Taking matters into their own hands over the last several months, the Center has been more successful than they anticipated with direct community mediation. 

As part of their community-based strategy, the Center sends a letter to employers who workers say have withheld pay, refused to pay overtime or otherwise deprived employees of wages. If employers fail to respond, Arriba follows up with phone calls to the employer.

If neither of those tactics work, the Workers Center sends in delegations to confront the employer in person, and collect video and audio recordings of the engagement. At times even the threat of showing up with a camera has been effective, says Requa-Trautz.

Yesenia Mejia and her husband were hired by verbal agreement for a construction job laying drywall and adding wall texture in a restaurant along with her husband. The contractor refused to pay them for their completed work and claimed he had never hired them. Mejia says she originally went to the Labor Commissioner’s office, but she did not have a W-2 showing verification of employment, and says the commission office did not accept texts, photos, and voicemails exchanged between the employer and Mejia as evidence of the theft, on the grounds that they could not verify if the contractor in the evidence was the same company that hired and refused to pay them.

“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 during a meeting with workers in March.

“It’s like they closed all of the doors on us. And we said ‘well how are we supposed to prove to you guys that we did the job? We have the pictures of before and after’,” of the completed work Mejia said. 

So at times, recovering wages have needed a more creative approach.

arriba and workers
(From left to right) Jose Aguirre, Yesenia Mejia, Maria Mendoza, Bliss Requa-Trautz, and Eleazar Castellanos.

Mejia was finally able to open up negotiations and recover her wages after Arriba’s staff threatened to publish a graphic of the employer portrayed as the Grinch who stole Christmas.

“Because we were being successful through the community pressure model we began to receive more cases than we had the capacity to handle,” Requa-Trautz said. “So we pivoted. Our job is not to fulfill the role of the Office of the Labor Commissioner. So we need to look at structural changes to make sure workers across the city and across the state have access to resources.”

Systemic defects

They’ve drawn the conclusion that challenges workers face when confronting wage theft stem from ineffective implementation and execution of existing laws.

The Arriba Workers Center is working on draft proposals to change how the Office of Labor Commissioner interprets and enforces laws that are on the books, with a goal of getting the policy changes approved during the next Legislative session in 2021.

This year, legislators passed, and the governor signed into law, legislation pushed by the Center and unions to create a task force to study the issue and establish a standard for independent contractors.

Mejia said as a laborer she has witnessed other workers who have been refused payment for their work, many of who fear reporting to the Office of Labor Commission due to their immigration status. The issue of wage theft is more widespread than reported, say construction industry experts and union leaders, who argue the Labor Commissioner’s office is poorly equipped to handle the epidemic and does little to punish contractors who rip off employees, leaving the policing largely to labor unions.

“The Labor Commissioner’s job is not to put companies out of business but to impose disciplinary action and fines as allowed by state law,” Teri Williams, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Labor Commissioner told the Current in July. “And the Labor Commissioner’s office, in particular, strives to ensure that all workers are treated fairly under the law.”

On Friday, Williams said the Labor Commissioner cannot investigate or enforce wage laws for certain types of workers, and a lot of the tension between workers and the commission is a result of these limitations.

However, Requa-Trautz says employees are often “misclassified” as contractors by employers who illegally try to avoid certain legal obligations, such as the payment of taxes or other benefits to their workers. 

“It’s a very conservative definition of employee versus independent contractor,” said Requa-Trautz. “There is a conservative interpretation for employee when in fact many of the folks employing day laborers could not run their business without that labor and are misclassifying individuals.”

“Simply not having a W-2 does not mean someone is a contractor instead of an employee in circumstances where workers are working by the hour, contribute no materials, or take on a personal cost, and don’t control their schedules,” she said.

Requa-Trautz and Arriba staff, along with Mejia and other workers, discussed wage theft issues and strategies for moving forward at a forum Friday.

On Thursday, the Current informed the state Office of Labor Commissioner that the forum was taking place, and that the office would be asked to comment on issues raised at the forum. When provided specific questions after the forum, an office spokesperson said they were not prepared to respond.

Help wanted: ‘Bigger voice’

Even cases that follow the process through the Labor Commissioner’s office can languish for months or years, says Requa-Trautz. 

Jose Aguirre said he filed a case with the Labor Commissioner in June when his employer for a home construction job blocked his phone number after Aguirre attempted to contact him for his pay. The commission did issue a final order in Aguirre’s favor, but the employer claimed he was never asked for payment, despite repeated calls from the Center requesting payment, and the order was withdrawn.

Aguirre still not been paid back. A settlement conference has been scheduled later this month, and four months after filing the initial complaint, he is hopeful for a resolution.

The Arriba Las Vegas Workers 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.

Amaka Ozobia the director of The Office for New Americans a new office Gov. Steve Sisolak signed into law said their goal is to address these gaps in services for immigrants and are currently looking for strategies to ensure labor laws are equitable regardless of language barriers among other issues. She said her office plans to draft a survey to understand the extent of wage theft. 

“We are currently in the process of coming on board,” Ozobia said. during the form “We are hoping in the coming months that we’ll have a definite strategy to address this issue. For the governor, this is something that’s really important.”

Maria Mendoza was a domestic worker for a family with three children before her employer eventually stopped paying her. Mendoza said she had lost hope of being paid back before she connected with Arriba, which is following her case.

Requa-Trautz said Mendoza’s case was the first domestic worker’s case they took on as a test of the domestic worker’s legislation passed in the Nevada Legislature last year.

Nevada’s “Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights” places several requirements and restrictions on anyone who employs a domestic worker. The law is meant to protect workers rights and ensure that domestic workers are paid at least the Nevada minimum wage and are paid for all working hours.

Requa-Trautz said in Mendoza’s case, the Labor Commissioner’s office did not take up the issue because the employer’s home was not registered as a business, meaning it was out of their purview.

“What are they going to do to help us?” said Mejia. “Like I said, Labor Commission isn’t doing anything. We need the help out there. We need a bigger voice and that bigger voice happens when we all speak together.”

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.

1 COMMENT

  1. In Arizona you can get three times the damages from a Labour Commissioner type dispute if you take it to small claims court instead of using the labor commissioner – of course you have to go to court, wait a month or more etc. plus the employer could appeal.

    Raise the amount of damages people can get and speed the process. One must keep in mind some people want to or have to work “under the table”. Wanted criminals, people with holds on their ID for child support, unemployment or welfare or tax liens etc. It is not just blue collar people either.

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