Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pastor's Testimony on Wage Theft Bill

Our pastor, Rev. Anne Dunlap, testified at the Colorado House Judiciary Committee in support of HB1296, which would strengthen enforcement against those who commit wage theft.  The bill failed to pass the committee, losing 6-5 on a party line vote (Republicans against, Democrats for).  Her testimony is below.

Testimony, HB 1296, House Judiciary Committee
February 28, 2012

Good afternoon.  My name is Rev. Anne Dunlap.  I’m a United Church of Christ minister and pastor of Liberation Community in Aurora.

I am testifying today in support of HB 1296, the Income Protection Act, because half of the members of my church are low-wage workers who have experienced wage theft themselves, every one of them, and multiple times.  I have witnessed with them the suffering that wage theft causes to them and their families, and to our community.  I have also witnessed with them the near impossibility of recovering their stolen wages from unethical employers.

In November, one of our members worked for two solid weeks laying marble floors for several bank buildings in the Denver metro area.  He was promised $1000 for his work.  He was never paid.

Just a few weeks ago, one of our members shared with us that because her hours had been cut at her regular job, she took on a second job at a bakery.  She worked 60 hours at the bakery in one week, for 7 dollars an hour, but when she got her paycheck, she was only paid for 40 hours.  This is a woman trying to support her family, including her very ill father whose care depends on the income she provides, and she was robbed of 20 hours of her hard work.

We asked if we could connect her with a lawyer, with a wage theft clinic, anything to help try to recover her stolen wages, but she just shook her head.  “It’s not worth it,” she said, “It won’t work.”

And essentially she is right.  My church participates in the wage theft task force in part to help us know better what recourse there is for fighting wage theft.  We have tried multiple ways to help workers in our congregation recover their wages.  We have tried lawyers, reporting wage thefts to the state Department of Labor, wage theft clinics, talking to police, small claims court, calling the employers ourselves, and even, once, going to an employer’s home with a politely worded letter asking him to do the right thing.  That visit only resulted in threatening phone calls to myself and to the worker.

None of these efforts resulted in our folks being paid.  The fact is, even if a case is won in court, recovering stolen wages can still be nearly impossible.  HB1296 is the opportunity to change that, by increasing enforcement and raising penalties against unethical employers.

By voting for the Income Protection Act, you have the opportunity to make a huge difference in the life of workers whose wages are stolen.  You have the chance to stop suffering.  Our members struggle to pay the rent, to eat, to provide for their basic needs and the needs of their families when their wages are stolen.  They suffer, and their families suffer, and our community suffers.

Wage theft is not a “boutique crime.”  Wage theft is a crisis that affects millions of workers in the US across all kinds of companies, not just low wage jobs.  Interfaith Worker Justice director Kim Bobo outlines the staggering number of violations in her book, “Wage Theft in America.”  She notes that one study estimated that companies in the U.S. annually steal $19 BILLION just in unpaid overtime. 

In my tradition, our sacred text teaches us what builds a healthy, strong community, and those teachings include not only the general “Thou Shalt Not Steal” but also paying your workers every day – in Leviticus (19:13), you are not even supposed to keep a worker’s wages until the next morning!  Deuteronomy (24:14-15) is even more precise:  “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers…You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.”

As a person of faith, and as a clergywoman who believes in the dignity of each human being, and in the dignity of work and workers, I urge you to pass HB1296, and protect the dignity and livelihood of workers in Colorado.  Thank you.

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