Northwest Justice Project photos
Signs at meeting link faith, wage theft.
Northwest Justice Project photos
Signs at meeting link faith, wage theft.
Marie worked for a company assembling and delivering newspapers. Her employer withheld workers' compensation from her paychecks and set her work schedule. But the employer paid Marie at a piece rate instead of giving an hourly wage, claiming she was an independent contractor. Her pay averaged $2.70 an hour.

Omar labored in construction. The company had government contracts requiring employers to pay workers overtime for work beyond eight hours per day. Instead, the employer paid Omar overtime only for work beyond 40 hours per week, which the employer minimized by scheduling Omar to work only three days per week. When Omar worked three 12-hour shifts in one week, he was not paid overtime.

Gloria worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. Even though she punch a clock at the beginning and end of each shift, her employers rounded her time down to the nearest hour. These fractions of hours often added up to several hours of unpaid work each pay period.

These are trues stories from Oregon and they illustrate what labor advocates call "wage theft." There are more blatant examples. Periodically, day laborers are taken to a site and left to work all day but then not paid. In the restaurant and food cart business, employers sometimes do not give workers the tips written in on credit cards.  

The Archdiocese of Portland's Office of Life, Justice and Peace has teamed up with the Jobs with Justice Faith Labor Committee, Oregon New Sanctuary Movement and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to educate churches about the problem and offer suggestions for intervention.

"It is not about a competition between labor and the employer," says Matt Cato, director of the archdiocesan office. "And it is not an issue where one wins and one loses and it’s over; it is important to continue the relationship because there will be times when you both may want to work with each other again. Life is about relations and being relational."

Four priests, a deacon and six lay Catholic ministers joined other religious leaders at a July 25 breakfast to discuss the matter. Theme of the meeting, held at St. Philip Neri Parish in Southeast Portland, was, "Thou Shalt Not Steal."

Father Jack Mosbrucker, a retired Portland pastor, has over the years advocated for workers who were not paid properly. He spoke to one Portland restaurant owner who had not been paying a Guatemalan cook for 15 minutes a day of setting up the kitchen. His intervention worked.   
"The workers typically in these situations are vulnerable," says Father Mosbrucker. "They don't have a union or some other organization backing them up, so they are on their own."

The priest tries to avoid taking sides and instead mediates between managers and workers.  

The main project now,  explains Father Mosbrucker, is spreading awareness about the problem.  

Some lawmakers are planning to introduce anti-wage-theft legislation in the 2013 Oregon Legislature. Rep. Michael Dembrow, a Northeast Portland Democrat, spoke at the recent breakfast at St. Philip Neri.

In their 1996 "Catholic Framework for Economic Life," the U.S. Catholic bishops have echoed century-old church teaching, saying that all people have the right to productive work, just wages and benefits, decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.