Written by: Rachel Wolf
Early Sunday morning a crew of ten on the volunteer Wage Theft Direct Action Team met at Denver’s day labor center, Centro Humanitario Para Los Trabajadores. They shared coffee, homemade muffins, and pound cake while they discussed strategies for potential reactions to the employer protest they were about to stage.
This was the latest escalation of a series of actions in a wage theft case for two construction workers who were never paid for their day of demolition work with a local Denver construction company. Despite months of back and forth with the employer and assurances that the men would indeed be paid, the checks never came. The Direct Action Team hoped the demonstration would bring the employer’s wage theft into public view and elicit a quick, just restitution.
Day laborers are usually hired for short term contracts in construction or domestic work, and are paid in cash or by check at the end of the day. Sometimes undocumented, often struggling to make ends meet, and rarely aware of the protections and rights due to them, day laborers in Colorado often face exploitation by employers. The two workers came to Centro in November 2016 with their case: one day of work, $135 each unpaid. The employer was refusing to pay them because they had not submitted a W4 and an I9 form. Employers, however, are required to collect these forms before an employee begins work and cannot later use this as a reason for not paying the employee.
After the Direct Action Team consulted with a local attorney, the employer agreed to implement the IRS backup withholding rule, which states that an employer will pay 72% of wages owed, the rest to be paid upon the presentation of identification information. Negotiations stalled when the employer refused to answer phone calls, so the direct action team at El Centro planned a demonstration at the employer’s house on February 12 demanding he pay the workers their day’s wages. At the same time, they were compiling the paperwork to take the case to small claims court. Failing negotiations, small claims court would be the next step to recovering the wages of the two men.
February 12 arrived bright and clear, and the direct action team piled into cars headed for the employer’s house. In direct action, the important thing is to have a specific achievable goal and concrete escalating steps to take to achieve it. This was one of those steps, and we weren’t sure whether it would work.
We rang the doorbell but received no answer.
So we started chanting, “All workers should be paid! All workers should be paid!”
It wasn’t long before the door opened, and the employer’s wife, phone to ear and son at her side, angrily demanded we vacate the premises. Although we were within our rights to demonstrate, being on a small team with only our voices and our handmade signs to advocate for our cause was a little daunting. A team of ten feels small and exposed compared to the tens of thousands who poured into the streets for the Women’s March in January, for example.
The team representatives calmly explained the situation and requested to speak with the employer, either on the phone or in person. Although she refused, the employer finally picked up when we called him again on the spot. After some bluster, he agreed to pay the requested wages, sending us to a second location to pick up the checks. He sent us on a scavenger hunt to find a hidden envelope in the breezeway of a business park, but when we found it it was about as satisfying as completing a treasure hunt. Inside were two checks, made out to each worker for the amount agreed upon.
The two men cashed the checks on Monday. For them, the case was as much about the day’s work as about the injustice of the wage theft. They wanted to hold the employer accountable for his actions in the hope that other workers will not have to face the same situation in future. We hope that employers will be more responsible with hiring, and just and fair with their workers.
El Centro Humanitario continues to educate workers on wage theft and on their rights, and the Direct Action Team continues to pursue new cases with workers to recover unpaid wages.