By N.C. AIZENMAN Washington Post (posted in Houston Chronicle), March 17, 2010, 10:27PM
WASHINGTON — On a recent Saturday morning, a group of Latino men wearing paint-spattered jeans and grim expressions strode through a Washington neighborhood in search of the contractor who had cheated them. He’d hired them to remodel a wine in November and December but paid a fraction of what he had promised before disappearing. Now they were hoping the owner could offer clues as to the contractor’s whereabouts.
Luis Colli, 33, a day laborer from Mexico, said he was owed more than $2,000 after more than a month’s work. His wife back in Mexico urged him to “let this go,” Colli said in Spanish, sighing wearily as the group reached the wine . “But I told her: ‘If I let it go, then it means I’ve been intimidated. If I let it go, it means there’s no justice.’ “
Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer with D.C. Jobs With Justice, nodded encouragingly. The morning’s mission was among the first steps in a new effort the nonprofit group has launched to fight what appears to be a growing trend of employers skipping out on wages.
There are signs that the recession has prompted more employers to shortchange their workers, either by failing to pay the promised amount or by offering less than minimum wage in the first place. Construction, restaurant and janitorial workers appear particularly vulnerable, especially if they are immigrants who don’t speak English or lack legal status.
At the District of Columbia’s Office of Wage-Hour, the number of workers seeking help to recover stolen wages rose to 523 last year, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2008.
Jobs With Justice, a national campaign for workers’ rights, and allied groups have responded by training low-skilled workers to help one another gather information needed to mount legal cases. Failing that, they plan to try more creative tactics: picketing recalcitrant contractors in hopes of shaming them or asking larger companies or government entities that employ bad bosses to pressure them to pay up.
“The capacity of volunteers and nonprofit staff to be able to follow through on these cases is going to be limited given how big the problem is,” Baris said. “Having workers themselves be at the front line is the best way to be effective.”
The magnitude of the challenge was evident as soon as she and the workers entered the wine . Colli began a hesitant explanation of the purpose of their visit, which another organizer translated into English. To Colli’s relief, the owner of the wine responded with a sympathetic smile. The contractor had cheated him as well, he said, charging $35,000 above the initial bid before leaving the job unfinished.
“I’m trying to find him, too,” he said. But he had little additional information to offer: a bank account number and the name and phone number of the contractor’s accountant.
“OK. It’s something,” Baris said. “Possibly the police can use this information to find him.”
Organizers at Jobs With Justice have decided to pursue alternative options when possible, inspired by similar efforts by groups in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. Since late fall, they have trained 11 workers from an independent association of day laborers called the Union de Trabajadores to act as the intake staff of a walk-in wage-theft work. At a recent session, the cases included that of Oscar Martinez, 54, of Guatemala. He had been working for a small refuse pickup company for three years when the owner announced that, because of a slowdown in business, he would have to cut Martinez’s pay slightly. Martinez accepted, but shortly afterward, the boss disappeared without paying him for the last two weeks.
“He used to pick me up at this McDonald’s. But he just stopped showing up,” Martinez said in Spanish. “I’ve been calling him and calling him, but he never answers.”