Since the Legislature altered the Texas Penal Code earlier this year in an attempt to reduce wage theft, labor advocates and government officials in various Texas cities have been working together to ensure that the change is widely known and that prosecuting violators is a priority.
The passage of Senate Bill 1024, known as the Wage Theft Law, ended a loophole that allowed employers who have committed wage theft — the failure to pay workers for their services and time — to evade prosecution by simply paying a fraction of what they owe an employee. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said that many violators understood that making a partial payment to an employee made it harder for law enforcement to classify the lack of full payment as a crime.
“They would more argue that this is a civil dispute,” Escamilla said. “Of course, the people that we are talking about are being taken advantage of because they don’t have the means to be able to bring a [lawsuit].”
One of every five Austin construction workers is a victim of wage theft, a recent study conducted by the University of Texas found.
The Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based nonprofit; Escamilla and others in his office; the Travis County district attorney’s office; state Sen. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin; and the Austin Police Department have been collaborating since the bill went into effect Sept. 1 to make enforcement of the Wage Theft Law a priority in the capital city. They announced their plans today.
“With any law, I think anyone would tell you that a law is only as good as its enforcement, so unless it is being enforced, you just have a law on the books and it doesn’t even really mean that much,” Rodriguez said.
Austin is one of about 50 cities across the nation announcing plans for combating wage theft. An additional three cities in Texas — Houston, El Paso and San Juan — also announced plans today. Organizers chose Nov. 17 as the day to announce their plans because it is the National Day of Action against Wage Theft.
Wage theft is considered a misdemeanor under the law if less than $1,500 was stolen. As such, Escamilla said that prosecuting wage theft is a logical priority in his office. Emily Timm, an analyst with the Workers Defense Project Policy, said that most cases of wage theft that her office has worked on have been misdemeanors.
Devoting resources to combating wage theft does not mean more serious crimes will receive less attention, since felonies are handled by the District Attorney’s office (which would also include wage theft cases over $1,500).
“It doesn’t compete with rape, robbery, or murder,” said Escamilla, who has appointed a person within his office to oversee the implementation of the new law.