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Business & Economy Commentary

Opinion: Stop wage theft and other exploitive labor practices in El Paso

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By Kathy Staudt and Sarahí Soto-Talavera

All of a sudden, people are talking about extremely low wages and unfilled employee vacancies in our region. Why? At one of the Corralito restaurants in El Paso, customers saw a big sign blaming unemployment benefits and supposedly lazy workers for their short-staffed restaurant.

The picture sparked rage among potential employees and customers. Two TV news stations covered the issue and the rage. The case is especially shocking because all of us bore witness to these very same employees being asked to risk their lives and go to work every day despite the risk of COVID exposure to themselves and their loved ones at home.

A sign displayed at an El Paso restaurant blamed sparked controversy. (Photo courtesy of Veronica Frescas)

In a job ad for Corralitos, the restaurant offered the Texas legal minimum wage for wait staff: $2.13 per hour, adding up to about a $80/week? Yes, tips are supposed to make up for the difference, but during the pandemic, are tips sufficiently generous to produce a living wage all days of the week and during all shifts? Will tips cover child care and transportation costs? Why should restaurant customers make up for artificially low wages in Texas when in New Mexico, wait staff earn the legal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour? 

Kathy Staudt

What makes the situation really galling is that four Corralito restaurants in El Paso obtained government-subsidized low-interest loans during the pandemic, known as the Paycheck Protection Program. In a database ProPublica built from the Small Business Administration, the restaurants got four six-figure low-interest loans totaling over $1.5 million.

Other employers, who do not display obnoxious signs, engage in illegal wage theft and hurt our region, our families, and sustain El Paso’s overall impoverishment compared to the rest of Texas and the United States.

Wage theft is defined as employers who are legally obligated to pay the legal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour but fail to do so; employers who are supposed to offer breaks to eat, but do not; employer contractors and subcontractors who are obligated to pay the “prevailing wage” for skilled work, (for example, a skilled electrician for whom wages are stolen when paid the laborer pay rate), but do not.

Sarahí Soto-Talavera

All of this is wage theft. We know that our community has a lot of mixed-status family members, and the biggest victims of wage theft are undocumented people. With more space, we could go on about other abuses in the workplace.

In 2011, the Texas state government criminalized wage theft through Senate Bill 1024. In 2015, the Lift-Up Alliance, consisting of multiple civil-society organizations, was successful in passing El Paso’s City Ordinance 018370 against wage theft. The city can act, with penalties, on city and non-city contracts.

The city bent over backwards to hear the voices of businesses and of victims. At the City Council meeting when the measure passed, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce spoke publicly in support of the ordinance.

Employers should not only behave fairly to pay workers what is legally owed, but also a living wage. When employers increase wages, workers will fill employment vacancies.

Alas, many employees fear making complaints or wait, sometimes years, to adjudicate the payment. The city bureaucracy and workforce commission can seem intimidating to wage-theft victims. Victims must document evidence of the theft with payroll stubs, time sheets, and full information about the employer in question for decisions to be rendered.

Our local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA El Chuco) is launching a program to support workers who want to fight wage theft. Call 915-257-9669 or email dsaeptx@gmail.com to get in touch with the DSA El Chuco Workers’ Clinic. In addition to DSA, other groups including Border Workers United (915-257-5250), combat wage theft; view their Facebook Page.

Kathleen Staudt is a retired professor, is involved in several community organizations and with Soto-Talavera, participates in the DSA El Chuco Workers’ Clinic Committee.

Kathy Staudt is a retired professor and is involved in several community organizations. She and Sarahí Soto-Talavera participate in the Democratic Socialists of America El Chuco Workers’ Clinic Committee.

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