Why I Continue to Fight Alongside Workers Who Experience Wage Theft.

By Yessenia Prodero

I have been volunteering for the Direct Action Team (DAT) since September 2015. DAT is a volunteer and worker run team that fights wage theft in the greater Denver area. Low-wage workers, such as day laborers disproportionately experience wage theft. Since there are few options for redress and many of those are complicated, the work the DAT does is vital in obtaining redress for stolen wages.The  DAT uses a variety of methods in order to collect wages; demand letters, delegations, demonstrations, and small claims court. During my time with the DAT, I have met the most passionate, dedicated, and genuine individuals.

Just one example was Alonso. He’s a proud father of three daughters, the eldest is studying to be a social worker. Like many of the workers’ cases we receive, he works 6-7 days a week and works extremely long days so he can provide for his family.

When we took Alonso’s case, volunteers Amy and Kyle took the lead on it. First, they sent a demand letter: an official letter sent to the employer’s office or home demanding the stolen wages. They then contacted the employer to talk over the details of the case and obtain his side of the story; Alonso also came to the meetings to explain his case in full detail and to be a part of the development of the case.

Each case DAT receives is taken on by two team members. While they are the lead on the case, the whole team contributes to the development of the case. These team contributions are expressed in a variety of ways; brainstorming during weekly meeting on what the next step should be on a case, going on a delegation to the employer’s home, work site or office, attending a protest, or going to small claims court (SCC).

When the employer was initially contacted he denied all knowledge of ever hiring Alonso. He said that he only hires workers as subcontractors on a job-by-job basis. Many employers hide behind the subcontractor excuse. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers have different obligations with an employee than with a subcontractor or independent contractor. For example in the case of a subcontractor, an employer doesn’t pay an hourly rate or salary, but may pay a ixed or contract rate (excuses them from paying overtime and minimum wage requirements), provide tools, or benefits such as unemployment.  The Department of Labor provides guidelines as to whether an employment relationship exists, which consider whether a worker is “economically dependent on an employer who can require (or allow) employees to work and who can prevent employees from working.” The threshold is high to prove that individuals are truly independent contractors working for themselves; most workers are employees.

So, they contacted the employer again. This time Alonso had provided evidence of his case: bounced checks, invoices of materials not paid by the employer, timesheets written by the employer, and amounts owed for hours worked. With this evidence, the employer  changed his story.

He said that he did remember Alonso, and insisted that he never said he didn’t remember him, just that he didn’t remember the specific job. When asked if he was willing to meet with the DAT and/or Alonso, he refused because he claimed that he didn’t owe him money. Upon pressuring for a meeting and a payment, the employer said he’d pay Alonso $1,000 “for his trouble.” Since Alonso was owed $3,700 for his completed work and the evidence against the employer was substantial, the team decided that small claims court was the best way to go. The employer had claimed that Alonso would never dare to take him to court; the delegations we had gone on to demand payment had been fruitless; he denied any form of payment.

The employer was served SCC papers at his residence and the DAT helped prepare Alonso on how to best present his case. On December 1st, 2016 the employer and Alonso met at mediation. At this particular SCC, mediation is a prerequisite to going to court and standing before a judge. Mediation allows both parties to talk over their case and where each side stands on it, with the aid of a professional mediator. Several DAT members, including myself, went to court to support Alonso. I think we were more nervous than he was.

Alonso was calm and collected. He knew he had a strong case against his employer and was confident he would win. And after about an hour in mediation the case was won in favor of Alonso. He was paid the full $3,700 owed to him by the employer over the course of three months.

While Amy and Kyle had been leading the case from the beginning, the rest of DAT had been part of the process of the case; brainstorming, serving the employer, and going to court. The teamwork and collaboration of DAT and Alonso on this case, as well as many others, are the driving force of fighting wage theft. When we won we all celebrated this victory by going to breakfast together.

While working with the DAT I have been able to use my privilege as an educated, U.S born Latina to help fight wage theft. The discrimination, abuse, and injustice is outraging and is a key motivator to continue fighting with workers like Alonso.

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