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New Denver Law Aims to Ensure Pay for Immigrant Day Laborers

The measure is the third city ordinance in the U.S. to criminalize nonpayment of wages. It targets employers who shortchange workers.

January 03, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — When a construction company stiffed Candelario Gonzalez for $1,800 in wages in November 2004, it was as if they had stolen Christmas.

His three kids went without presents. "That was my Christmas money," said Gonzalez, 31, who had worked installing irrigation systems. Gonzalez didn't know where to turn for help. He couldn't call the police, because though he had been deprived of the salary he earned, he had not been robbed of any possessions.

Now the police can get involved. In an effort to protect largely immigrant day laborers from fraud, Denver has become the third city in the country to make nonpayment of wages a crime.

"If someone steals a wallet, the police can come and arrest you," said Councilman Doug Linkhart, who proposed the ordinance that unanimously passed the council last month. "But if you don't pay [a person], the police can't do anything" to you.

It's part of an effort by labor advocates to protect laborers from being shortchanged by employers and, hopefully, to raise pay across the board by preventing employers from cutting corners on temporary hiring.

"By protecting the wages of all workers, that brings up wages for everyone," said Minsun Ji, executive director of El Centro Humanitario para los Trabajadores, a day laborers advocacy group that pushed the new law.

The Denver Police Department's involvement in recovering people's back pay is likely to stay minimal. Ji said she hoped that by warning deadbeat employers that they could face criminal sanctions, it would become easier to recover lost wages.

In Austin, Texas, the first city to pass a law making nonpayment of wages a form of theft, the day laborers center was able to resolve 85% of unpaid claims by threatening to involve the police. The recovery rate in Denver is about 50%, Ji said. Kansas City, Mo., also has a wage theft law.

Colorado state law makes it illegal to fail to pay more than $500 in wages, but Ji said that the state had never filed charges against the numerous employers who have stiffed day laborers. "The whole department doesn't have an enforcement mechanism," Ji said.

And failure to pay an amount less than $500 could not be prosecuted anywhere in Colorado. But that is not a trivial sum for many laborers. "The people we're dealing with are very low-wage workers," Ji said. "Five hundred dollars is a huge amount for them."

The law makes it an infraction to fail to pay a worker, and also enables the Denver district attorney to file felony charges against businesses that fail to pay more than $500 in wages.

Advocates say that immigrants -- legal and illegal -- are the most frequent victims of wage theft.

"It happens frequently in Denver and, I imagine, elsewhere too," Linkhart said. "They'll hire people and not pay them, and since they're a noncitizen, they think: 'What're you going to do, take me to court?' "

Because many day laborers are relatively transient, the victims often don't bother to go through the sometimes laborious process of small claims court, advocates of the law said.

But not all victims of wage theft are immigrants, and the backers of the law pitched it to the Denver City Council as a measure that could protect all citizens. There was minimal opposition from anti-immigrant groups that have long criticized El Centro Humanitario, complaining that the organization makes it easier for illegal immigrants to find work.

El Centro says it helps citizens like Elbert Burch, a 39-year-old driver and carpenter's assistant who was given a $104 check for work he did on a Denver house in June. The check bounced. He's been trying to reclaim his wages, plus the $25 bad-check fee, ever since.

As part of his effort to recover his wages, Burch has started working in the legal clinic offered by El Centro Humanitario for laborers fighting to recover lost pay. He can rattle off a list of forms that must be filed with the state before going to court, and he believes the new law will help level the playing field.

But Burch still hasn't gotten over the sting of being short-changed. "It makes you very leery of other people you go to work for," he said.

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