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June 1, 2011

Wage watch

Advocates fighting unfair wages as seasonal day labor picks up

An older man with a white dress shirt matching his mustache, and a lap dog smiling in the passenger seat, turns his four-door pickup off of Main Street in Shelbyville. A Hispanic man slaps his cell phone shut and scurries, as do about six other Hispanic day laborers eager for work, most carrying water jugs and Gatorade. Four climb in. The rest sit down, salvaging the morning’s last charitable breeze. It’s about 7:45. They’re still hopeful a job will come along.

A few minutes later, a truck’s tires crackle over gravel and pause. The driver holds up one finger. About four men gather around his open window and piece together an agreement through broken Spanish and English.

Day laborers, like the ones who collect in downtown Shelbyville, work on a day-to-day basis, mostly in construction, light manufacturing, landscaping or farming. Many are immigrants, both documented and undocumented. And for some, the political toxicity of “illegals” is advantageous, making it easy to secure cheap laborers too nervous to speak out against low or unpaid wages.

With the surge in seasonal work under way and a poor economy making it easy to exploit the jobless, advocates, including Sister Pat Reno, are keeping watch. She’s inside the Centro Latino, a small brick building that offers classes and other services to Shelbyville’s Hispanic Community. It’s now about 8:45. A generous tree on Centro’s lawn shades a cluster of workers.

Reno, a nun with kind, blue eyes, is scooping coffee grounds into a coffeepot and setting out chewy Chips Ahoy for
the men.

“They’re humble, good, hard-working people,” she says.

Shelbyville’s Latino community trusts Sister Pat. Last year, a few workers told her about a contractor who hired 11 men to work on a demolition crew for two weeks. At the end of their job, he told them he was bankrupt and didn’t pay a penny.

“That’s outrageous that he worked them knowing that he wouldn’t pay them,” she says. Most of the time Reno will call contractors directly trying to collect unpaid wages — the nun thing helps.

“Sometimes I can call and shame them into paying,” she laughs. She hasn’t heard of anything as egregious as the “bankrupt” contractor so far this year.

“But the summer’s still early,” she says. In February, Reno met two labor advocates who armed her with information on workers’ rights. Zenaida Lockard is a lawyer with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. Rachel Shelton works at the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic in Lexington, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting immigrants and refugees. They told Reno that even undocumented workers should not shy away from reporting shady employers to the state for investigation. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security have an agreement: DOL must look into claims made by all immigrant workers and Homeland Security is not allowed to get involved.

That’s probably one of the most important pieces of information Lockard and Shelton are trying to spread. The two have been holding free clinics for workers in Lexington since the winter and will hold them in Jefferson County starting this summer.

Shelton says she’s seeing a lot of workers getting paid $6 an hour rather than the $7.25 minimum wage. Lockard has met dishwashers getting paid as low as $3 or $4, along with wait staff earning an hourly wage as low as $2.13. That’s legal as long as tips make up the difference, but that doesn’t always happen.

“It’s lowering the labor standard for everybody,” Shelton says. “If there’s somebody who’s being paid $4 an hour for a job, then someone demanding minimum wage is going to lose out in the end.”

So far the clinics haven’t led to any lawsuits. Letters demanding payment typically work. In construction related cases, filing a lien against the property also usually yields quick payment, especially in instances where the property owner has no clue the sub-contractor of their contractor is breaking labor laws.

About five years ago, the Kentucky Equal Justice Center recovered $90,000 in unpaid wages for nine immigrant horse farm workers. They negotiated a security interest in the farm’s thoroughbreds that were sold at auction. That case inspired KEJC to create an advocacy position dedicated to labor issues.

So in early 2010, they hired Lockard. Since then, 67 cases have been opened — 30 have been closed and 37 remain active. To date, total wages recovered and turned over to clients equal $10,080.50. The wages that have been negotiated for but have yet to be paid total $2552.50.

The Kentucky Equal Justice Center works closely with the state’s labor cabinet, an agency juggling about 160 complaints a month with only 15 investigators. Budget cuts over the last decade have shaved close to 10 investigators from the staff.

“We always have plenty of work,” says Marjorie Arnold with the Kentucky Labor Cabinet. “But we’ve never been a huge division.”

Lockard and Shelton feel the labor market could benefit from more watchdogs.

They’ve begun training different service providers in Louisville on labor rights. Goodwill, Jobs for Justice, and an attorney for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union are among those who’ve attended.

Lockard also is gauging how receptive Louisville may be to a wage theft ordinance. In the last few years, cities including Seattle, Denver and Austin have passed laws granting municipalities legal authority to intervene and punish wage theft.

Back in Shelbyville, it’s now close to 9 a.m. and the sun has staked out nearly every pocket of shade. A few of the men begin to walk down Main Street when a blue pickup with a trailer rattling behind it stops.

“Cuánto? Cuánto?” one man shouts as he jogs to the truck, a blue backpack clapping with each step. How many? He wants to know. Two men hop in. Inside the Centro Latino, Sister Pat expects that by lunch all will be hired for the day. That’s routine. She’s not so confident in how the rest of the summer will go.

“Whether we are going to have a repeat of people stiffing these guys we don’t know,” she says. “But I hope word has gone out that they can’t really do that.”

The first day laborer wage claim clinic in Louisville will be Tuesday, June 28, from 4-6 p.m. at the Network Center for Community Change, 334 E. Broadway.