DC Day laborers demand pay

by Alex (Balt-Wash NEFAC), Photos by Isis

Day laborers and supporters pressure DC City Council to stop wage theft, establish worker's center

On March 19th, a group of about twenty DC day laborers and supporters filed into DC City Hall to testify at the City Council's performance and budget oversight hearing over the Department of Employment Services, and demand accountability from the DOES's Office of Wage and Hour, which has a dismal record on fighting wage theft suffered by day laborers and the homeless in DC. They also were there to push for the City Council's assistance in building a Worker's Center in Ward 5 to further confront worker's abuses.

When we learned the hearing, initially scheduled for 2pm, had been pushed back a few hours, we took the opporunity to delegate Mayor Fenty. Fenty had previously promised to meet with the day laborer's union, the Union de Trabajadores, as well as the Worker's Center Coalition, but had simply never responded to letters asking him to actually do it. Thus, we went to demand a meeting in person. The Mayor's staff told us he wasn't in, but several laborers from the Union and several day labor organizers from DC Jobs With Justice spoke with his director of communications, who promised to get a meeting set up in the immediate future.

Then we went to talk to the director of DOES, Joe Walsh, whom we were actually able to meet with. Walsh, previously from Boston, has only been serving a few months, since the previous director resigned late last year after a scandal with a summer jobs program for DC youth. Walsh claimed he didn't know anything about the cases brought up to him by the day laborers and JWJ organizers, but promised a meeting within the next two or three weeks, and promised to attend the UdT meetings with Pamela Banks, the director of the Office of Wage and Hour.

The hearing finally started around 5, and had testimony from several community allies from the Worker's Center Coalition, as well as day laborers themselves. A Reverend from Interfaith Worker Justice told of an all too common scenario among day laboers in a rather touching anecdote, the bad check from a bad employer many day laborers keep in their wallets that they will never be able to cash. An organizer from Jews United for Justice spoke of the informal nature of day laborers, and how frequently their rights are violated. That 62% of day laborers have been victims of significant wage theft. A day labor organizer from Jobs With Justice talked of countless stories of bad checks, and told of a group of day laborers who had worked for two months in a hotel, not to be paid a dime. Workers are regularly promised one wage, and then paid significantly less. Often workers are paid well below minimum wage, and sometimes just not paid at all.

Issues were brough up demonstrating how the Office of Wage and Hour makes it almost impossible for day laborers to fight wage theft (in this author's opinion, it's another tragic example of institutionalized racism). Filing claims currently requires an employer's full name and home address, something most day laborers never get. A photo ID is required to even get into the office, again something many day laborers do not have. Access to interpreters is basically non-existent, and if a laborer goes in without their own, they can rarely even get through the door (which an organizer from DC Employment Justice Center pointed out is a violation of DC language access statutes). Then, if laborers are able to get in and file a claim, nothing happens. The best case is that there's enough info to subpoena the employer in for a fact-finding hearing, and almost every time they simply refuse to show and the case is dropped. Even if they do show, nothing is done. One employer outright admitted to owing laborers in excess of $1000, then left and nothing further was pursued. Laborers reported getting a letter, in English, years later informing them that the statute of limitations was running out on their claim despite providing evidence of their bad employer.

Two day laborers spoke of a job with Granite Development, where they are both owed $2400 each. They filed a claim, including the home address and all the information, and were told they would get a call back from the Office of Wage and Hour. That call never came. They called back themselves, and were told the Office was still investigating, and were not told more information was needed. Then, they recieved a letter in English telling them they did not provide enough information, that the statute of limitations had expired, and they were told to take their claim to small claims court. As one of the laborer's put it, "they like the work we do, and they show their gratitude by not paying us for it."

Several basic demands were presented to the City Council for changes within DOES and the Office of Wage and Hour both by the Worker's Center Coalition and the Union de Trabajadores:

1. The Office must improve the investigation policies on bad employers. Currently, worker's must provide a home address, when many day laborers cannot even get the address they worked at. It must be changed so that the Office can track employers down by license plates and phone numbers, which is usually all the laborers can get. This should include information sharing with other agencies, such as the DMV.

2. The Office must keep in regular contact with laborers, updating them on the status of their claims, and requesting any further information needed.

3. The Office must improve access to immigrant and non-English speaking peoples, provide and train interpreters in accordance with DC law, and rescind the requirement for photo ID.

4. The Office must fight to regain lost wages, which it currently does not do.

5. The Office must forward information on bad employers to the Attorney General for prosecution and punishment.

The need for a Worker's Center was brought up, which both the Mayor and City Council have previously ignored. In addition to providing covered space for day laborers, it could provide job training services for the community as a whole, instrumental in helping DC's rising unemployment rate, which is currently around 10% city wide, but very polarized, with the affluent western neighborhoods around 2%, while the poorer areas across the Anacostia average 20%, and some neighborhoods as high as 72% according to the City Council's own figures.

A paralegal from the Washington Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights explained how it would also streamline the demands that laborers and allies brought forward, as it's much easier to track and hold accountable bad employers when there's a consistent method for getting employer information, and a single body keeping track of that information. One of the day labor organizers told of being violently threatened when trying to get an employer to give the worker his promised pay, where other places with worker's centers have solved the issue with just a phone call.

The hearing ajourned with former mayor and Council Chairperson Marion Barry saying he would take a personal interest in solving the cases of the laborers who testified, admitted that much of what was happening was criminal, and vowed to work to change it and patch these holes in Wage and Hour policies. Then again, the city has promised a lot of things already, and hasn't delivered. We'll just have to see what actually happens, and if the City Council won't step up, we'll just have to take the fight to bad employers themselves.