By Reshma Kirpalani
For Reporting Texas and KUT News
AUSTIN — City and county officials as well as the Austin Police Department announced their recommitment to implementing the Wage Theft Law, which was passed during the last legislative session. The law, which took effect on Sept. 1, added criminal penalties for employers who withhold workers’ pay and closed a loophole against those who only partly pay employees. Members of the Workers Defense Project also rallied during what was being called the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft.
Eli Rodriguez was one of Workers Defense Project volunteers chanting at the Travis County Commissioners Courtroom. Rodriguez has worked in the construction industry in Austin for the past eight years. To some, he is just a statistic: One in every five construction workers is illegally denied their rightfully earned wages, according to the WDP’s 2009 study “Building Austin, Building Injustice.”
Rodriguez said that not getting paid after months of construction work was traumatic.
“Basically, it’s the feeling that someone is totally belittling you. Someone almost dehumanizes you,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “It puts you at a zero level.”
The Wage Theft Law took effect September 1. Rodriguez said he feels that he fought for his rights and won. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said that local officials are committed to enforcing the new law.
“What I see is we’re moving the dial and we’re going to be able to focus on this and move cases through and at least send the message to the community that we’ll be watching. Continue this activity at your own peril,” Escamilla said.
Rodriguez said implementing this law in the city of Austin is just the first step.
“So what the construction worker committee wants to extend this work that we’ve done at a local level to cover workers at a state-wide level and even beyond,” Rodriguez said. “We want workers to be covered in El Paso and all these other cities, so that they can make reports to the police and police will take this seriously.”
“In the past, before this law, you would call the police, and police would ignore you or investigators would put this on the back burner,” he continued. “Now, they really treat it like a criminal issue, like it’s theft. Now, people are actually really paying attention to the worker and that’s what we want.”
The Interfaith Worker Justice’s National Day of Action Against Wage Theft was also marked with events in Houston, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.