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Archives for April 19, 2021

What is Wage Theft?: Rebecca Galemba on the Impacts for Day Laborers

Half a million Coloradans experience wage theft each year with workers losing $750 million in unpaid wages and benefits. However, despite this issue’s extremity, transparency and social awareness about wage theft are limited.

I recently spoke with Dr. Rebecca Galemba,  an Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, about the prevalence and impact of wage theft on day laborers in the Denver metro area. At Korbel, her research and teaching emphasize community-engaged work and interdisciplinary methods to enhance public good.  

Dr. Galemba spoke at TEDxMileHigh: Uncharted in March 2021, and her talk focused on her wage theft research and findings. Follow our discussion about how wage theft occurs for day laborers and potential solutions that the private sector and the government can provide to mitigate the adverse effects on workers’ livelihood, health, and sense of security.

Watch Rebecca Galemba’s TEDxMileHigh talk from TEDxMileHigh 2021 Uncharted Conference (her talk begins at 1:44:11).

Dr. Rebecca Galemba on Wage Theft in Denver

Every journey has a backstory. How did you become interested in wage theft?

I got involved with wage theft both academically and through activism on immigration issues. When I lived in Boston, I taught an immigration class, and I wanted my students to get outside of class and learn through practical experience, so the students worked with immigrant rights organizations. When I moved to Denver, I was looking for ways to get involved with similar initiatives right from the start.

The first thing I did was contact American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) because I was connected with them in Boston. They connected me to the nonprofit organization in Denver, El Centro Humanitario. They are a center for domestic workers and day laborers, which provides services and engages in policy and political advocacy.

I began collaborating with the worker center in collaboration with my courses. I teach a research methodology class at the Korbel School of International Studies, at the University of Denver, and we partnered with El Centro for community-engaged research projects.

Your research focuses specifically on day laborers, right?

Yes. My research focuses specifically on day laborers, most of whom are immigrants from Latin America who seek daily jobs for cash.

How do job contracts for day laborers work; can they range from as short as a day to months?

Yes, most day-laborer jobs are as short as a day, but the end goal for most of them is to turn the day job into a longer-term opportunity or repeat jobs. Sometimes, day laborers are able to find a summer-long project that started out as a day job, but other times, day laborers are undercut because the employer exploits them by paying inconsistently. This is where you see a lot of wage theft.

Are day laborers disadvantaged in the free-market system? Since employers can find someone who is willing to work for less, if an employee brings forward a complaint, is the employer quick to dismiss them?

Yes. Employers can find people who are willing to work for less. Those individuals could be more recent arrivals, or they might be desperate for work. There is a tension between solidarity of people trying to boost each other up and establish wage floors and a market that is inherently competitive. That’s why El Centro tries to implement more transparency by instilling specific agreements and requirements. 

On the other end, if labor laws implement stronger regulations that a lot of employers can’t meet, would that inadvertently hurt day laborers who are looking for jobs?

I think it’s more likely to upgrade the market. Day laborers tend to work in competitive low margin industries where there can be few ways small players can make money, so they often squeeze labor.  If regulations are enforced, the playing field can shift when their competitors have to do the exact same thing.

The problem is largely that the regulations are not enforced and the penalties for getting caught are often lower than the cost savings from exploitative practices.

Through your fieldwork, did you run into the issue of day laborers encountering barriers to healthcare access? Did they delay urgent medical care?

Yes, there are several instances of workers laboring through injuries and health conditions. In many cases, we saw workplace injuries, which the employer is supposed to cover, but a lot of the time the employer will avoid their responsibilities.

Once, we observed a case where a worker had fallen from a tree and broken several ribs. The employer was liable. The worker took the case to court and even got a judgment in his favor. But, the problem was that we couldn’t find the employer so he could never recover his settlement.  The worker would still come out to the street corner and take off his brace so that he could get hired. He needed the work and money to pay his rent and support his family.

What kind of industries are more prone to instill such violations?

It varies by state, but certain industries are more prone nationally. In some states, restaurants are the biggest violators, but in Colorado, construction has contributed the largest share of wage and hour violations.

Is the fear of retribution contributing to workers’ hesitancy to seek legal action? 

There are varying levels of retaliation and retribution. People are nervous that they’ll get fired, be reported to immigration even though this is illegal, given an undesirable schedule change, etc. At the end of the day, it’s the opportunity cost for the workers. Many times, workers are short-changed small amounts of money.

For many workers, they cut their losses and move on, but for others, a $50 short-change means that they couldn’t pay the motel that night and are sleeping on the street.

What kind of legal support or resources are available for day laborers?

There are very few resources available for unauthorized workers. There is a saying that they are over-policed by the law and under-protected by its more protective provisions.

But U.S. wage and hour laws cover anyone in the United States regardless of immigration status under the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, there are exemptions and exclusions to coverage, which is why you will see lots of employers classify their employees as independent contractors to avoid covering them as their employees.

While immigrant workers can pursue claims under wage and hour law, most immigrant workers don’t have the time and resources to pursue these claims.

But, there are pro-bono legal services they can access, right?

Yes. One in Colorado is Towards Justice. They do free-legal intakes, and they’ll advise workers of their best options. They also have a growing network of pro bono and low-cost attorneys. Class action cases are the best because it lowers fear of retaliation when individuals do not have to each come forward. But sadly, many day laborers’ cases cannot be easily aggregated.

In terms of short-term solutions, what kind of role can private companies play?

There is a big role for the private sector. Some of the biggest advocates who are pushing forward legislation have been businesses who don’t want to see themselves cheated out of the marketplace.

Are there any specific industries that are stepping up their efforts to improve the status quo?

The restaurant sector with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which works to promote high road establishments. They also have an app where you can search the restaurant name and find information about how it treats and pays its employees; it also awards good actors.

Do you think such business models can help provide incentives to other sectors to take similar actions?

Yes, rewarding businesses that step up, in addition to punishing the bad ones, is a role that the private sector can shoulder. Can you shame the bad ones but highlight the good ones? We grappled with this question a lot.

In Colorado, it used to be hard to shame the bad actors because the Colorado Department of Labor couldn’t release who violated the law, but after the Wage Theft Transparency Act was passed in 2017, they can publish this information. The benefit to this is that if we know which industries are violating, resources can be targeted to inspections to make sure they’re complying. For example, nail salons in New York, and car washes in Los Angeles became vectors for increased inspection after rampant abuses and violations were recorded.  

Currently, there is a proposal in Denver to have a wage bond in the construction industry. Thus, even if the worker doesn’t get paid, or the employer can’t/won’t pay them, there is a fund so that workers can still collect their money.

What are some potential longer-term solutions?

There are currently many gaps within federal laws, and that’s why state and locals have filled them in. Obama boosted staffing levels for the federal Department of Labor and got them back to basically where they were in the 1980s prior to cuts. That just shows how severely it was undercut, especially as the number of workplaces to monitor has dramatically increased over this period.

Meanwhile, the immigration enforcement budget has ballooned. When the two systems collide, what do you think happens? They aren’t meant to infringe on each other, either, but they often do.

Potential longer-term solutions include, first, bolstering funding for federal and state departments of labor and making them more proactive than reactive—now they largely depend on people to come forward individually. Second, making resources more accessible to everyday people, and third,  adapting laws to the changing nature of work. 

What is the next step for your research?

My research on wage theft has been on the public level from the start; I’ve been involved in policy groups at the local and state levels. But, now I’m transitioning into writing for academic audiences. I’m writing this up as a book right now, actually.

One next step I am thinking about is to look at some of the effects of COVID-19 on day laborers. Periods of precarity have impacts on long-term income and health, and COVID is likely to aggravate other forms of vulnerability over time. We are also interested to explore how organizations can support workers holistically, as whole individuals.

What message do you hope to deliver to the wider community? 

I want people to see that while wage theft impacts many people, it impacts the most vulnerable even more, whether that be immigrants, women, people of color, international students, or farmworkers. It impacts many more people than immigrants; wage theft is just a symptom of the kinds of precarious work that have become increasingly prevalent.

Thank you for your time. I hope your talk reaches many people!

Thank you, too!

Denver STAR Program: When Mental Health Workers Respond to 911 Calls

In June 2020, the Denver STAR program—a group of mental health professionals trained to respond to 911 calls—launched in Denver, Colorado, just as protests against police brutality erupted country-wide. Since June, the Denver STAR program has been highly successful. Fewer cases of excessive police force and arrests have led to continued funding for the program. Learn more about the Denver STAR program and the potential for country-wide use of this policing alternative.

Mass Incarceration and Police Brutality in the U.S.

With over 2.2 million Americans behind bars, the U.S. is the world leader in mass incarceration. Of those incarcerated, over 57 percent are Black or Latinx, despite only making up 29 percent of the U.S. population.

Communities of color are not only over-represented inside prisons, but also in accounts of police brutality. In just the past year, the police have shot and killed 985 people. Despite consisting of only 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by the police than white men.

Incarcerated individuals are also more likely to experience mental health or substance abuse issues than the general population. More than half of people in prison experience some form of mental health issue, while between 10 and 25 percent suffer from extreme mental illness, including schizophrenia and major affective disorders.

Compare that to an estimated 65 percent of U.S. prisoners who have a substance use disorder (SUD) and it is no secret that the U.S. has institutionalized responding to mental health issues with prison time.

When the Denver STAR program launched in June of 2020, it set out to address these inequities. What if mental health workers responded to 911 calls instead of the police? Could the Denver STAR program reduce local cases of police brutality and arrests for mental health and substance abuse?

Denver STAR Program: Support Team Assisted Response

Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod is passionate about ending the criminalization of mental illness and substance abuse. In 2018, Herod launched the Caring for Denver ballot initiative, which allocated $30 million to create more mental health and substance-use services in Denver. Thus, creating the Denver STAR program.

What If Mental Health Workers Responded to 911 Calls? Denver STAR Program

In her TEDxMileHigh Talk, Representative Herod explores what might happen if the police do not respond to every 911 call. What happens when some 911 calls are diverted to social workers, substance abuse counselors, health providers, or other trained professionals who will not use force? What happens when people experiencing a mental health crisis are provided with mental health resources, instead of being arrested?

As Representative Herod explains, in some cases, calling 911 can be the beginning to the end of someone’s life. This is often due to the police not having the tools necessary to respond to a mental health crisis. As Herod states, “nearly 50 percent of victims of police brutality have … a mental health disability.”

“To fix the mass incarceration issue, we must look critically at every piece of the puzzle, find out what’s working and fix what’s not. If there’s one thing that’s clearly not working, it’s the one-size-fits-all approach.”

Herod asks, “Why are we asking our police and our prisons to fix our mental health crisis?” The Denver STAR program is the first of many potential solutions to this problem.

Denver STAR Program: Evaluated

Early Success

In the first six months of the program, STAR resolved a total of 748 incidents—up to six calls a day—that involved no force, arrests, or jail. These incidents took place during the STAR operating hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in neighborhoods with high 911 call rates. In one case, someone called 911 because a man with no shoes in 5-degree weather was becoming agitated. The Denver STAR program provided him with shoes and resolved the issue without any further disturbance.

The early success of the program has led officials to allow STAR to expand and handle 3 percent of the total 911 calls in Denver. (This would equal around $11 million dollars in funding to expand the program.)

Ideas for Improvement

In the official evaluation of the program, the city indicates a few areas to improve the program. To expand accessibility, the city suggests adding wheelchair functionality to the STAR vans. There are also recommendations to include a system for measuring the long-term outcomes of the program.

It states, “Future evaluations should focus on an individual’s interactions with the criminal justice system post-intervention and fidelity to established treatment programs as a result of their initial assessment by the STAR team.” In the next couple of months, the city may be adding four to six more vans and a full-time supervisor to the team.

Carleigh Sailon, a STAR social worker, told the Denverite that more vans, food, and blankets, in addition to after-hour and weekend shifts, are necessary to improve the program. Melvin Wilson, senior policy consultant for the National Association of Social Workers, explained further. He said, “What social workers really need are more options that provide comprehensive alternatives to criminalization.”

The Potential Future for Nation-Wide Use of the Denver STAR Program

While the Denver STAR program gathered inspiration from the CAHOOTS team in Oregon, larger cities are launching similar programs, including San Francisco and New York City. Hopefully, these initiatives can become national policy, reducing mass incarceration and accounts of police brutality.

Further Learning

If you would like to learn more about the alternatives to police in 911 calls, check out these resources: