Brothers Axel and Henry Tubac were working at Presidential Marble & Granite in Hamden last year when they stopped receiving checks worth six and seven weeks of pay. After Axel Tubac asked his boss about the missing pay, he was instructed to keep installing kitchens.
“It was just a nightmare,” Axel Tubac told U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Tuesday afternoon.
DeLauro is one of three Democrats in Congress who have introduced the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act this legislative session. In a round table held Tuesday at the offices of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, DeLauro spoke on the merits of the bill and heard from community activists and LAA lawyers on how the bill would affect local workers.
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce March 16. It would combat what DeLauro described as “a serious problem nationwide” — one she said is illustrated by “staggering” statistics, including the aggregate $1.7 billion lost by workers in New York and California due to wage theft in 2011, according to a study commissioned by the federal Department of Labor in 2014.
“Those who violate employee rights need to be held accountable,” DeLauro said. “Our federal laws need to address the inequality that exists.”
Under current federal law, employees can only reclaim stolen wages at the rate of $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage level. Workers making $9.00 an hour, then, lose a significant portion of their wages, DeLauro explained. Enforced by the Department of Labor, the bill would require employers to pay all wages they owe to employees.
Employers would also be required to disclose terms and records of employment and pay stubs to their employees. Employers who violate the minimum-wage and overtime protections or record-keeping provisions guaranteed by the Fair Labor Standards Act would incur civil penalties ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
LAA staff attorney James Bhandary-Alexander praised DeLauro for focusing on enforcement of wage theft penalties, noting that current penalties for employers who withhold wages are not severe enough. Bhandary-Alexander said LAA has taken an interest in the bill because it will help the firm achieve justice for its clients.
The Tubac brothers — who are represented by LAA interns Danielle Feuer ’15 LAW ’18 and Rachel Wilf ’12 LAW ’17 — are two of several hundred people for whom LAA has provided services regarding wage theft. Over 100 of these clients are involved in 20 separate federal lawsuits.
DeLauro said the issue of wage theft may be larger than it appears, as many workers do not speak out for fear of losing their jobs or other forms of retaliation from their employers.
The bill would also increase the time employees have to bring claims to old wages lost from two to four years, DeLauro said. Doubling that time would make it easier for workers to take collective action against their employers, she added.
Participants at the round table highlighted the consequences of wage theft at a local level.
Bhandary-Alexander said firms in New Haven who commit wage theft run the gamut from mom-and-pop stores to large, multinational corporations.
Unidad Latina en Accion organizer John Lugo described wage theft in DeLauro’s district as an “epidemic,” implicating restaurants such as Goodfellas, Mezcal and Thai Taste. The DOL investigated Thai Taste for wage theft violations in February and the owners of Goodfellas denied wage theft allegations through an attorney after former employees filed a lawsuit against the owner in May.
“All these restaurants are responsible for criminal actions,” Lugo said.
Lugo made reference to a survey ULA is conducting in New Haven, which has found so far that at least 80 percent of immigrant workers in the city had been victims of wage theft at some point in their lives.
One of the most effective ways to fight wage theft is if a local community rallies around the cause, Lugo said.
While ULA has held protests outside of establishments such as Goodfellas, Lugo expressed frustration that police have intercepted protesters for disturbing the peace instead of turning their attention on the restaurants. Lugo pointed to a March 22 protest in front of Goodfellas, where he was detained by police for disturbing the peace.
Bhandary-Alexander said laws protecting workers against wage theft often go unenforced due to lack of support from local government.
“The level of resistance to enforce these laws at the municipal level is very high, namely because people see it as something someone else is in charge of,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
While Lugo considers Connecticut’s Department of Labor more effective at handling local wage theft issues than the federal DOL, he, DeLauro and Bhandary-Alexander acknowledged that departments at both levels currently have limited resources to robustly enforce worker laws.
The Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act also includes the creation of a grant program to fund DOL education, training and enforcement regarding the bill.
Last June, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law Senate Bill 914, which secured payouts of double the amount stolen in wages for Connecticut wage theft victims. The law has been in effect for six months.
The Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act is also sponsored by Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Correction, April 7: A previous version of this article stated that Axel Tubac and his brother Henry Tubac did not receive six weeks of pay in 2015. In fact, Henry Tubac did not receive seven weeks of pay.