Lobbyists Push Houston Toward Less Restrictive Wage Theft Ordinance

Inside City Hall Photo by: Matt Brawley
As Houston City Councilmembers prepare to vote on an ordinance to crack down on wage theft, lobbyists are working behind the scenes to make the ordinance less aggressive.

The city's proposed wage theft ordinance is intended to bring sanctions against employers who attempt to withhold wages or otherwise cheat their employees out of compensation.

Mayor Annise Parker's proposal calls for the city to maintain a database of all Houston employers who are convicted of wage theft.

Employers would remain in the database for five years and would be prohibited from contracting with the city, or from getting any necessary permits or licenses to operate in the city.

Parker says this is a large problem in the Houston area.

"Many of the targets of wage theft, unfortunately, are undocumented or are low-skilled day laborer workers or domestic labor. The people who are most vulnerable, living pay check to pay check, are the most targeted."

Which is why Parker says she finds it frustrating that lobbyists are appealing to several councilmembers to change the ordinance. They want it to apply only to city contractors, not to the companies that simply need a city license or permit.

Melissa Stewart represents the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, one of the trade groups lobbying for looser restrictions. She told city council that the restaurant association strongly condemns wage theft.

"Our concern with the current ordinance is that it duplicates existing laws at the state and federal levels. We are supportive, however, of an ordinance that applies only to city contractors. We hope to work with the administration to find a solution that is good for employees and good for Houston business."

Mayor Parker agreed to pull the wage theft ordinance from this week's agenda and will hold a last-minute meeting with stakeholders over the issue.

"And we were surprised that after intense negotiations and discussions with stakeholders, that they popped up across the street talking to other councilmembers. And I expressed my unhappiness about that and they said they'd like to come in and visit with me and Councilmember Gonzalez face to face."

Parker says she has no intention of loosening the terms of the ordinance, but acknowledges that she needs nine votes around the council table to pass it and might have to make some compromises.

Meanwhile, supporters of the wage theft ordinance say they'll be at next week's public comment session, urging councilmembers to pass the tougher restrictions against companies that steal from their employees.

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Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...