Courtesy Northwest Workers’ Justice ProjectSarabia stands holding the paycheck from his boss that he’d been awaiting for seven years.
Courtesy Northwest Workers’ Justice Project
Sarabia stands holding the paycheck from his boss that he’d been awaiting for seven years.
As a child in Mexico, Selso Sarabia worked in the fields. So when he came to America, he wanted a job working outside. But about eight years ago, what he found was a landscaping job with a boss who never paid him.

Sarabia thought his boss would be a good guy. He was Christian. He asked his workers not to drink and not to smoke. He even played Christian music in the work truck. His workers worked hard: 12- or 13-hour days with no water, no lunches, no breaks and no bathrooms.

When his first week of work ended, Sarabia was told he’d be paid. He wasn’t. He asked his boss what happened, and boss assured him that he’d be paid next week. The next Saturday came and there was no payment. Sarabia needed money for rent and his phone bill. He called the man but the boss didn’t answer his phone. So he went to the man’s house. Sarabia was told to keep working and he’d get paid — but he never was. It took Sarabia seven years, two different lawyers and a sheriff’s boot on the boss’s car to get his money.

Sarabia is not alone. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry recieved 3,286 wage claims and complaints in 2016.

Northwest Workers’ Justice Project is a nonprofit law firm representing low-wage workers. The organization also advocates for policy as part of the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft. The coalition put forth a number of bills on wage theft in this year’s legislative session, which will be wrapping up in July.

“What we’re trying to do is level the playing field,” says Kate Suisman, coordinator for campaigns and alliances for Northwest Workers’ Justice Project.

Wage theft is quite broad, Suisman says. On the most basic level, it’s defined as not being paid fully or properly for your work. An obvious way to think of that is not getting your paycheck. But that is not where it ends.

Suisman tells stories of some employers unwilling to pay workers because they’re immigrants. Others would simply sweet talk the worker into working another week before getting paid.

A common example of wage theft is when employers tell employees to show up 15 minutes early to set up their stations.

“Because of the power dynamic with employers, you’re not really in a position to say, ‘No, I will not come 15 minutes early,’” she says.

Legislative efforts
During the 2017 legislative session in Salem, four bills were brought forth to help combat wage theft. Three of the bills, House Bill 2169, House Bill 2180 and House Bill 2181, faced a public hearing in the House Committee on Business and Labor in February. None moved out of the committee.

House Bill 2169 grants attorney’s fees awards to employees who prevail in wage-dispute claims.

House Bill 2180 establishes the right of employees for civil action based on unpaid wages and authorizes creation of a lien on employers’ real and personal property for unpaid wages.

House Bill 2181 creates rebuttable presumption, which in this case shifts the burden of proof to the employer to show there was no retaliation, against employers who discriminate or retaliate against employees within a 90-day period of that employee having made a wage claim or discussing a wage claim with an attorney. The bill also requires employers to give a reason for termination to employees within 10 days of a written request.

The only bill proposed by the coalition that is still active is House Bill 2856, sponsored by Family Forward. It would create a community outreach and labor education program within the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries to promote awareness of employee rights. The bill passed out of the House Business and Labor Committee and was referred to the legislative budget committee, Ways and Means, where it has not seen further movement.

Despite these failed legislative efforts, the fight for how to deal with employers who have withheld wages from employees is very much alive.

In a packed hearing room in Salem at the February hearing for House Bills 2169, 2180 and 2181, workers, advocates, attorneys, business lobbyists and union lobbyists came forth to speak.

Archdiocese takes a  stand
Among those who testified at the hearing was Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Portland.

“People of all faiths believe that we are called to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and comfort the afflicted,” Cato told lawmakers. “Today the afflicted I am focusing on are those victims of wage theft.

“Wage theft occurs in most industries and affects all people.  But it affects the low-wage workers whose wages are stolen the most,” he testified. “These workers are left without money to pay for food, shelter and provide for their children.

“Wage theft denies exploited workers of their dignity. The Catholic Church has been a longtime advocate for the dignity of work and rights of workers; wage theft is a violation of our principles,” said Cato.

Yet, some lawmakers expressed concern that the legislation proposed was not fair for employers.

“I hear fairness as an argument as to why we should do this to employers, but it doesn’t seem just. It doesn’t seem even,” said Rep. Dallas Heard (R-Roseburg). “We’re discriminating against one group because we perceive them to have more capital versus the employee.”

Michael Dale, director for the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, had a response to that. The current law allows employers in wage claim disputes to collect attorney’s fees from employees in certain cases, such as claims for minimum wage.  However, even if an employer is awarded attorney’s fees from an employee, it is very rare that a minimum-wage employee can pay them.

“You can’t get blood from a turnip,” he told the committee.

“If you’re talking about a minimum-wage employee who didn’t get paid some wages, you’re probably not going to get your $40,000 or $20,000 or $2,000 of attorney fees recovered.”

The current law, rather, intimidates people who have good wage claims from bringing them up because of fear of being responsible for an employer’s attorney’s fees, Dale said.

Throughout the hearing, workers testified before the committee explaining their situations and how they were forced to miss their lunch breaks or otherwise were not paid for their work. A number of them faced retaliation after complaining to their bosses about wage theft.

“Until people naturally do what is right, ethical and legal, we need legislation to enforce the legal payment of wages earned,” said Cato recently.

But concerns among the business community in Oregon were obvious. Those who testified against the proposed legislation did not see these bills as the solution to wage theft.

Pay for work
“We all agree that workers should be paid what they’re owed in a timely fashion, that employers who take advantage of their workers and essentially steal their pay should be sanctioned. We all agree that when employees are cheated by wage theft, the impact can be absolutely devastating and we all agree that the vast majority of employers in Oregon follow the law and pay their workers on time,” testified Betsy Earls, vice president and counsel for Associated Oregon Industries, who also was representing the Oregon Business Association.

The disagreement comes, said Earls, about what to do when an employer ignores the law.

“The fact of the matter is wage theft is already illegal and none of the bills that is before you today make it more illegal,” she said. “Rather they impose new legal and regulatory burdens on all employers in Oregon in an attempt to get at a few bad actors who are cheating their employees and who are unlikely to change their behavior regardless of any changes in the law.”

For clients like Sarabia, justice for stolen wages came seven years after it was supposed to. Whether or not legislation like that proposed by Northwest Workers’ Justice Project and the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft could help workers like Sarabia remains to be seen.