Employers in the nation’s fourth-largest city will find it harder to withhold pay from their workers after Houston lawmakers approved a city ordinance cracking down on wage theft on Wednesday.
Wage theft refers to the practice of employers withholding wages for hours worked, either by failing to pay overtime, requiring employees to work without clocking in, or violating minimum wage laws. Houston’s law both enhances reporting options for workers and bars wage theft violators from doing business with the city. Workers will be able to report wage theft incidents to the city’s Office of the Inspector General. When a company is proved to have committed wage theft it will be added to a public database and barred from receiving city contracts. If the violation leads to a criminal conviction, the company will also lose business licenses, essentially evicting the firm from Houston. It passed the City Council on a unanimous vote.
Advocates and organizers told Salon’s Josh Eidelson that they expect similar laws to pop up in other cities and expressed a hope that winning on wage theft in a south Texas metropolis will expand the playing field for worker rights laws at the local level. “If you can win it in Houston, you can win it in Atlanta or Dallas,” one expert said, adding that the win proves that concern about wage theft isn’t limited to traditionally liberal bastions like New York and Chicago, which already have wage theft laws on the books.
Chicago passed a law in January that goes beyond previous state-level wage theft rules in Illinois. Miami’s wage theft law went into effect in 2010, provoking business interests to push for a state-wide ban on such laws that passed one chamber of the Florida legislature before dying in the state Senate. One wage theft awareness website has collected local and state efforts to combat the problem into a helpful map, and a 2012 report from the Progressive States Network illustrates just how far workers have to go to gain protections against wage and hour violations.
Wage theft is a national problem and an escalating one. Worker suits over wage theft allegations have risen each year for the past five, and they quadrupled from 2002 to 2012. Employers steal more money from low-wage workers each year than the what criminals haul from bank robberies and store hold-ups combined. Even when a worker is able to prove wage theft and win a judgment from the authorities, that doesn’t guarantee restitution. More than eight in ten California workers who successfully win a wage theft judgment still never got their money, according to government data.
Local laws responding to the wage theft epidemic have brought backlash from the business community in some cases. Lobbyists pushed Florida state lawmakers to prohibit local wage theft laws after Miami enacted a law similar to the one Houston just passed. Other states have simply stripped funding for the government investigators who enforce wage and hour laws. It remains to be seen how the Texas legislature will respond to Houston’s move.