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Jan
2015
21

The State of Colorado Has Not Brought a Wage Theft Case Since 2001; Laws Unchanged Since 1941

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A Rocky Mountain PBS I-News investigation has unveiled the rampant wage theft that is plaguing the state of Colorado.  Since 2005 the Department of Labor has recovered over $31 million in wages that had illegally been withheld from employees according to the FLSA.  During the same period, more than $1.4 billion was collected across the country.  With the problem ever-present and receiving more media attention, states and municipalities are looking for better ways to deal with this problem.

Wage theft occurs across a wide array of industries.  In Colorado, construction tops the list, followed by food service, oil and gas, and janitorial services.  Real estate companies, dentists’ offices, hotels and bakeries make up the next tier of violators. 

One major problem is the laws on the books are both outdated and underused.  The Colorado Wage Claim Act prescribes penalties of a misdemeanor charge, which carries a $300 fine and up to 30 days in jail, for wage theft.  The penalties have not been changed since the law was enacted by the Colorado General Assembly in 1941.  But the state refuses to even enforce these paltry laws. No charges have been brought by the state under the law since 2001:

Colorado prosecutors say the state’s wage law is a difficult tool to use to bring criminal charges. The biggest hurdle is proving that the employer intended to “annoy, harass, oppress, hinder, delay, or defraud” the employee by withholding his or her wages. Another obstacle is proving that the employer is able to pay the wages, which means prosecutors have to subpoena company financial records.

The low penalty of $300 and 30 days in jail is too small to make prosecution worth it, said George Brauchler, district attorney for Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.
“Careless driving? You can get up to 90 days in jail. This, up to 30. Think about that,” he said. “Speeding 25 miles over the speed limit has bigger penalties than this.”

Colorado legislative records show the penalties for wage theft have not been changed since 1941. A bill to strengthen the criminal penalties never made it through the state legislature in 2013.
“My best guess is that it has very little deterrent effect for employers who are willing to engage in this conduct,” Brauchler said.

Undocumented workers are also a serious hurdle to proper wage remittance.  Unscrupulous employers seek out easily exploitable workers. The city of Boulder, which is somewhat of a bright spot for the state in terms of enforcement, helps such undocumented workers collect wages in the face of exploitation.  From the report:

The Boulder Office of Human Rights is active against wage theft complaints, which it takes to Boulder Municipal Court as misdemeanor complaints.

Carlos Vera, who worked for a house painting contractor, said he tried for two months to recover wages he was owed. Instead, the employer asked for Vera’s driver license and Social Security number to intimidate him, Vera thinks. Vera was undocumented at the time. He told the man he still had a right to his wages.

“Good luck, I’ll see you in court,” is what Vera remembers the man saying. Vera filed a complaint with the Office of Human Rights, the employer was charged with “Failure to Pay Wages Due,” and Vera recovered his wages, $400.

Under state and federal law, all workers have a right to wages they earned, regardless of immigration status.

Boulder’s law dates to 2007 and stipulates that employers can be subject to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail for failure to pay wages.

The City of Denver has a similar law but, unbelievably, it considers wage theft “petty theft,” similar to stealing a bike.  The city also lacks the infrastructure — such as Boulder’s Office of Human Rights — to get cases to trial. 

Read the entire PBS investigation.

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