Local Group Calls 'Wage Theft' A Growing Problem

A local nonprofit says wage theft is a growing problem among some industries here in the Houston area. Wage theft refers to cases where employees are either underpaid or not paid at all for the work they've done. And although it's hard to ever collect money owed, the group says there are ways the city can crack down on these employers.

 

Mary Vargas worked as a housekeeper here in the Houston area. That is until her employer decided not to pay her.

"She was working as a domestic worker and she went six months where they did not want to pay her her wages and also overtime, and she worked up to 73 hours a week."

Vargas’ case is an example of what one group calls "wage theft."

Jose Sanchez of Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center says it happens more often than you might think.

"It starts with small deductions in paychecks saying, 'Oh, well in the next check, you’ll recover that, or in the next one, I’ll pay you back this,' and little by little this starts accumulating.  And a person who needs a job and depends on that job to feed their family and their kids, they will take the chance to see if that money comes instead of quitting initially."

Sanchez says wage theft occurs most often in the restaurant and construction industries. He says the victims aren’t always non-English speakers, but they are always the lowest paid workers. He says the workers need the job, and therefore, put up with the employer’s excuses.

"A lot of times employer will admit to owing money, but they will make up excuses, such as, 'I wasn’t paid by my contractor, or the business isn’t doing well, or I’m waiting on a check, etc. etc. ... But as the federal law states, as well as the Texas pay day law, workers have the right to be paid for the work that is done. There is certain dates and time limitations where this  work has to be done regardless of the status of the employer."

Members of the nonprofit group took their case to city hall. They say collecting from the employers is almost impossible even when taken to court. But the group says the city can revoke permits, licenses or even fine employers who engage in wage theft.

As for Mary Vargas, she’s still looking for a job. It may doesn’t have to pay a lot, but she does want to actually get paid.