Wage theft has emerged as a significant issue in Colorado, with an estimated $700 million reportedly stolen from workers in the state just last year. In response to the alarming problem, the City of Denver launched a dedicated unit to investigate claims of wage theft. Recently CBS News Colorado spotlighted the issue and checked in on the unit one year into operation.
The issue has been exacerbated by the recent surge in migrants who bad actors see as easily exploitable labor. In response, investigators from the City Attorney’s office have been proactive in spreading information about worker rights in places like homeless shelters and other establishments that provide aid. The intensive outreach has subsequently led to a steady increase in reported cases revealing the widespread nature of the problem and the growing number of victims affected. New legislation has also given the Denver Auditors office added resources in going after the employers who perpetuate these practices.
What's at Stake
Edgar Juaregui is a representative for the Southwest Mountain States Regional Council of Carpenters. And as part of his role, he has been an advocate for the immigrant community and champion of worker rights. Having worked in the construction industry for many years, he has encountered numerous workers with harrowing backstories. Juaregui told CBS Colorado, "They are willing to walk from their country all the way here. they will do whatever it takes to change their lives." Driven by this determination they trek from their home countries only to find themselves victimized once they've arrived.
Juaregui highlights some of the ways in which they are taken advantage of in the construction industry, "They do not get paid overtime after 40 hours and some do not get paid at all." Juaregui stresses the urgency of the matter and that victims can file complaints not only with the state but also with the Denver City Auditor's Office and the Denver City Attorney's Office.
One Year In
The outreach efforts have yielded substantial results, with investigator Brian Snow from the City Attorney’s office boasting a caseload of 75 opened investigations after just over a year of operation. "Between the presentations in the shelters and word of mouth between all the migrants, it just started flowing and case after case is coming in," says Snow.
Previously, victims who lost less than $2000 struggled to hold their employers accountable. However, with the new unit, the City Attorney's Office is now empowered to investigate and prosecute such cases, no matter the amount involved.
With this approach, the magnitude of the issue becomes apparent when considering individual cases and looking at the problem as a whole. For instance, what initially began as a claim for two brothers owed approximately $1,200 has transformed into a case involving 14 victims, amounting to an estimated $90,000 in bounced checks.
Working in step with the City Attorney’s office is the Denver Auditor’s office which brings a different set of tools to wage enforcement. We spoke with Matthew Fritz Mauer, Executive Director of Denver Labor, a division of the auditor’s office. He says that his office and the City Attorney’s office are in constant communication. He notes that Snow primarily focuses on migrants that have been, “shipped to Denver,” and perform hard labor for little to no pay, “he can hunt down those situations and put together those cases,” says Mauer.
January’s passing of the Civil Wage Theft Ordinance granted the Auditors office authority to enforce new regulations and penalties pertaining to civil wage theft, introducing updated procedures in the process. “We have some different tools… We have a lot of authority now with the civil wage theft ordinance that city council passed…Its given us the tools we need to not only evaluate complaints when they come to us but actually go out and proactively find wage theft so that people who are living paycheck to paycheck don’t have to stick their necks out to try to get the minimum wage or overtime or whatever the right may be.”
Mauer stresses that the Attorney’s office is boots on the ground and that Snow is a point person in getting these cases documented while the Auditor’s office uses sophisticated software and resources to plumb wage records for underpayments.
The Fight Must Continue
The establishment of a dedicated unit and increased outreach efforts demonstrate a commitment to addressing the problem and has, in its first year, produced substantial results. However, even with recent successes, Juaregui says it is likely that many cases remain unreported.
"In construction, a lot of workers don't come forward because they are undocumented, and they fear that they will get in trouble and they and their families will be affected. These employers know this and a lot of times they hold this over their heads as a threat,” Juaregui told BDN.
As part of the outreach campaign, the unit wants to also raise awareness about the city's executive order, which safeguards victims and witnesses of crime irrespective of their immigration status. The team wants victims to know that they will be protected and to have no fear of repercussion.
With the new legislation, the Auditor’s office is opening many new cases pertaining to the construction industry, “There is a big push in the construction industry partly because of the prevailing wage ordinance partly because we understand again, hey this is where a lot of the violations happen its where a lot of people are misclassified. A lot of people are paid straight time even when they are working over forty hours in the week. It’s where a lot of subcontracting happens.”
Juaregui is hopeful that these bad actors will be punished. He has seen firsthand the exploitation that occurs in his industry, “the exploitation of migrants must stop and as part of my job, I’m constantly investigating these stories on construction jobsites. It brings relief to me knowing that Colorado is stepping up to eliminate these practices in the workforce and specifically in the construction industry where a great number of these migrants try to make a living.”