Equal Justice

With the influx of immigration into Texas and resulting low-wage employment on the rise, a nonprofit that fights for workers’ rights is expanding across the state, particularly in the Metroplex.

Equal Justice Center (EJC), which provides free legal services to low-wage workers who’ve been taken advantage of monetarily and otherwise, believes it’s just beginning the work necessary to eradicate an abusive landscape.

“Wage theft is rampant here in Texas,” said Michael Cowles, an attorney with EJC’s Dallas office. “A lot of people are falling through the cracks and live in a different reality, where there’s nothing more than just getting by.”

The EJC has recovered more than $7 million in damages and unpaid wages for workers over the past 11 years, according to Cowles. The nonprofit started in Austin before opening an office in San Antonio, then in Dallas about two years ago.

It handles cases involving all work-related abuses, such as wage theft and sexual harassment. Construction workers represent about 30 to 35 percent of EJC cases, with restaurant workers coming in at about 25 percent, Cowles estimated. Janitorial workers make up most of the rest.

EJC has represented more than 130 workers in the region and has recovered or is in the process of recovering more than $300,000, according to EJC figures. “We’ve really just begun to scratch the surface,” Cowles said.

Wage theft occurs when employers don’t pay workers their promised wages or avoid paying them at all, pay them less than the minimum wage ($7.25 per hour in federal standards), and cheat workers out of overtime pay. It violates state and federal employment law, and perpetrators face criminal charges punishable by prison time, yet it’s still rampant.

One in five construction workers in Texas has suffered some form of wage theft, and only about 25 percent of workers reported earning a wage that enabled them to support their family, according to “Build a Better Texas,” a Workers Defense Project report from January 2013. Researchers for the study surveyed thousands of workers in Texas cities with the greatest amount of construction work.

Construction accounts for more than 5 percent of the state’s economic output, and Texas is pacing the industry nationwide, but most of its workers are benefiting least. Nearly all job growth in construction has been in jobs paying poverty-level wages, according to the report.

When payment comes, it’s often through a flat day rate that doesn’t account for all hours worked, Cowles said. Some never get paid at all, and many get paid well below what they’re owed: Of 80 percent of respondents in the report who worked more than 40 hours a week, almost half said they didn’t get overtime pay.

Onecimo Garduno, a client of EJC’s, was owed money for remodeling work he did at a Dallas-area apartment. Telemundo, a Spanish TV station, broadcast Garduno’s story and referred him to EJC, which recovered his wages.

“I think that was a lesson for the guy who didn’t pay me,” Garduno said. “I don’t think he is taking advantage of people anymore.”

Many employers still do, though. They intimidate undocumented workers by threatening to tell authorities of their illegal status, and use that as leverage for below-minimum wages. An Economic Policy Institution (EPI) analysis in 2011 showed that about 1.1 million unauthorized immigrants make up nearly 10 percent of the Texas workforce.

Gonzalo Serrano, a fellow with EJC-Dallas, followed a passion to his new position. A 2003 graduate of McKinney High School, he was the first in his family to go to college. He grew up in the immigrant community and achieved a degree from University of Texas Law School while spending time with EJC in Austin.

He recently received a fellowship funded by Equal Justice Works and sponsored by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation that enabled him to return to the Metroplex and put his passion to work.

“I’ve been promising for a long time I would come back and help people who need it,” said Serrano, who spent time with EJC’s clinic in Austin. “I’m back now and excited to do it.”

Workers and their families aren’t the only sufferers of wage theft, either. In Texas, wage theft results in more than $117 million in lost wages and $8.8 million in lost sales tax revenue; payroll fraud results in an estimated $54.5 million in lost unemployment insurance tax revenue and even more in federal income tax, according to the “Build a Better Texas” report.

Stolen labor factored in to contract bids drives them down and undercuts honest employers who can’t match them. And it’s not just in construction and small-time business owners. EJC has sued large companies like Wal-Mart and Target that have contracted out janitorial and other services, Cowles said.

“Big companies subcontract to insulate themselves from any kind of legal behavior,” he said. “We’re going to be seeing more and more of that.”

The EJC represents people at 200 percent of the poverty line and below – a population increasing daily in D-FW. The center plans to also educate and train workers how to avoid abuse and stand up for their rights.

Garduno said he’s longer afraid to fight back legally when needed, thanks to EJC. Those like him could move the state and country away from workplace abuse and mistreatment.

“The problem is going to get worse before it gets better,” Cowles said. “Ideally, from the day we set out, we wanted to put ourselves out of a job.”

For local news updates, follow Chris Beattie on Twitter

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