As workers’ rights advocates around the country raise their voices in ever-louder protest of wage theft, it appears some in Congress may finally be listening. This week the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), decided to persist in re-introducing an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that would take away federal contracts from contractors who engage in wage theft.
Just a few weeks ago, House conservatives blocked a similar amendment to deny contracts to employers with documented wage theft violations (see our timeline of attacks on low-wage workers), so nobody was expecting this new amendment to pass.
But as the votes were tallied, the amendment not only passed, it received a unanimous “yea” vote from the Republican-controlled House.
“Sometimes employers ask workers to show up 30 minutes before their shift starts, while others pay workers with debit cards that charge fees for every use,” Grijalva and Ellison said in a statement released Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter which form it takes—wage theft is wrong and it needs to stop.”
Despite President Obama unilaterally raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour back in February, it’s still possible—given the rampant problem of wage theft for all low-wage workers—that some of those earning the minimum on government contracts are still experiencing some form of wage theft. Rescinding the contracts is a first step to establish the principle that if you’re getting taxpayer money and you’re engaging in illegal activity, then you won’t get taxpayer money anymore.
The National Employment Law Project found in a recent survey that low-wage workers make up about 77 percent of government contract employees who work in food service, retail or janitorial service.
Building on grassroots success
The grassroots energy that pushed Mr. Obama into signing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers also gets the credit for pushing the anti-wage theft amendment. At a time when bankers and corporate executives are hoarding so much of the nation’s cash that they resemble the robber barons of the early 20th century, workers and their advocacy organizations are grabbing headlines with true tales of employers who rob their own workers. Wage theft, as Sally Dworak-Fisher of Maryland’s Public Justice Center told me in an interview for my PRA report on attacks on low wage workers, “has become for many industries the way they do business.” (Even hiphop icon Snoop Dogg stands accused of failing to pay $3 million in wages to his own bodyguards, who are reportedly now suing him.)
Low-wage worker advocacy groups like KIWA in Los Angeles are leading the fight to publicize and combat wage theft.
Though the rules for implementing and enforcing Congress’ new anti-wage theft measure for federal contractors haven’t come out yet, the rules did just come out this week for implementing and enforcing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers. The workers, many of whom work at fast-food and retail companies housed in federal buildings, were right there to meet the new wage with additional demands. As Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC reported in a blog post earlier this week, Good Jobs Nation is the name of the organization representing the low-wage federal contract workers.
We’ll be watching this summer, as the Congressional Progressive Caucus plans to add the wage theft amendment to every single appropriations bill left in the Congressional session. Will they all get the same unanimous votes from a House that has tended not to care much about workers’ rights?