Unpaid foreign workers can fight back
SUMMIT COUNTY – It’s a simple expectation, and a fair one: You work, you get paid. But sometimes, for immigrant workers in a foreign land with some less-than-scrupulous employers, it doesn’t work that way.
Recently, Silverthorne Police Department administrative assistant Wanda Kiewiet has dealt with a rash of Latino construction workers seeking help from authorities because contractors have refused to pay them.
According to Kiewiet, the employees describe how they work for a few weeks, and then the boss explains that either he cannot pay them or will not pay them.
Kiewiet suspects that the employees are working “under the table” and are unsure of what to do to get what they’re owed.
Kiewiet said that she has recently had personal contact with at least 10 such workers who claim to be owed between $20,000 and $30,000.
“It’s not all contractors, just a few of them,” Kiewiet said. “But this is a horrible thing. It’s just plain wrong.”
Throughout the history of Summit County’s boom days and growth, this is not an uncommon phenomenon.
Travis Bennett, employment counselor with the state’s Division of Labor and Employment Workforce Center in Frisco, said the problem comes and goes, like the fly-by-night contractors themselves.
Bennett said his office staffs a bilingual employee, funded by a grant, part of whose duties is to help with this issue.
Bennett also said it’s not just Latinos being exploited by employers.
He said, recently, Russians, Poles and other Eastern European immigrants have had their wages withheld by cleaning company managers – run by Eastern Europeans themselves.
“They think people don’t have any recourse because these are illegals,” Bennett said. “But that’s not the case at all. Under state law, they have an obligation to pay them.”
The workers can take action, though.
Workers who have not been paid – legal or illegal – can file a wage claim with the Division of Labor.
The state department has a team of compliance officers, including bilingual staff, who can help workers pursue restitution. The office can provide workers with forms in Spanish to get the procedure under way.
The legal route is another alternative. Unpaid employees have the right to file a civil claim in county court to pursue their back pay.
County Court Judge Ed Casias said he presides over such cases and that workers don’t need a Social Security number to collect what bosses owe them.
“If they can come in and show they failed to get their hourly rate, that’s what the law requires,” Casias said. “They have as much right to access the courts as anyone else.”
If the judge does find in favor of the worker, restitution is arranged through the court clerk. That could include a simple payment, garnishment of the employer’s wages, liens or other alternatives.
But sometimes, the employer never shows up to defend its side. Casias said in the last four cases he’s heard this year, the defendant didn’t show. The judge ruled in favor of the workers, including their owed wages, court costs and interest.
One difficulty, though, is that the forms needed to arrange the restitution are in English. Casias recommends the workers get assistance from a lawyer or translator.
Richard Risser, of Mountain Temps and TransNations Language Services, works with many immigrants and has already helped fill out such paperwork.
“We’ve seen plenty of it,” Risser said. “It’s only a few companies. Hopefully, this puts a little pressure on them.”
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