Our center and faculty publish expert research on topics related to Latin America. The LAC also fosters research collaboration among faculty from diverse units across the campus.
Below is a list of past and current external partners. If you are interested in working with the Latin America Center on a project, contact us.
DU Just Wages Project
Since January 2015, Associate Professor Rebecca Galemba has led a research team of graduate students at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies to investigate day laborers' experiences with wage theft in the metro Denver area. In order to understand the larger holistic climate in which wage theft occurs, Galemba and her students conduct interviews with day laborers, employers in the construction industry, lawyers, legal agencies, politicians and non-profit stakeholders. The team partners with the Colorado Wage Theft Task Force, Towards Justice, and the Direct Action Team at El Centro Humanitario to assess the effectiveness of volunteer efforts to assist workers reclaiming their wages through state and informal processes.
The Problem: Wage Theft
Wage theft includes:
- Misclassification of employees (for example, as independent contractors)
- Failure to pay overtime
- Improper deductions
- Improper use of tipped jobs
You may be a victim of wage theft if you:
- Work piece rate or off the books
- You clock out early and keep working
- You have had tips withheld
- You don't receive regular breaks
Workers in a variety of industries are victims of wage theft, but in Colorado the prevalence is most dramatic in the construction industry, which claims 21.2% of Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) violations and is the largest source of unpaid wages (Stiffler CFI 2014: 3-4; Boiko-Weyrauch 2015).
Why is wage theft a problem in Denver?
Metro Denver consistently ranks as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country with no expectations that the population boom will cease in the near future. Denver owes this growth to good its job prospects, mild climate and an incredible ability to attract young, college-educated workers. The city's population increase has led to a construction boom that has overwhelmed Denver's post-recession construction labor force. The 2008 crash led to large reductions in the workforce, and the industry has been unable attract enough workers to meet demand. As a result, many smaller operations depend on day laborers and other forms of immigrant labor, despite increased efforts on the part of the Colorado legislature to limit their use.
Kim Bobo's study coined the term "wage theft" to refer to a national epidemic where workers across industries are losing billions of dollars every year in the form of stolen wages, unpaid overtime or misclassification of labor (2008: 7-8). The Colorado Fiscal Institute (CFI) estimated that wage theft affects half a million Coloradans and that workers are losing at least $750 million a year (Stiffler CFI 2014: 1). However, the CFI bases their estimates on data extrapolated from state workforce numbers and the rate of wage non-payment from the NELP 2009 Broken Laws study conducted in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago (Stiffler CFI 2014: 3-4; Bernhardt et al. 2009). Based on findings from one year of qualitative research and outreach, Galemba's research team will survey 400 day laborers in Denver and Aurora about their experiences with wage theft and strategies for seeking redress. This survey will provide necessary data about a segment of the low-wage workforce in Colorado that is particularly vulnerable to wage theft. Beyond documenting the problem, the analysis will inform policymakers on bridging the gap between the availability of legal resources and hesitancy of marginalized populations to utilize them.
The prevalence of wage theft among low-wage immigrant day laborers is well-documented. Valenzuela et. al.'s (2006: 14) extensive study documented that in the two months prior to their survey, 48 percent of day laborers were underpaid for work completed and 49 percent had at least one instance of nonpayment. According to NELP's Broken Laws study, foreign-born Latinos experience the highest minimum wage violations; twice the rate of U.S.-born Latinos and almost six times that of U.S.-born whites (Bernhardt et al. 2009: 43). In New Orleans, Elizabeth Fussell (2011: 611) argues that wage theft is facilitated by the deportation-threat dynamic, meaning that employers exploit workers under the assumption that day laborers are undocumented, whether or not they possess legal authorization. She argues that the deportation-threat dynamic will only be undermined when workers' immigration status "cannot be assumed," and when "potential perpetrators. . . cannot expect to get away with victimizing unauthorized Latinos." Galemba and her team's research examines possible mitigating factors: do more robust labor laws and advocacy generate a climate where employers cannot get away with wage theft? Specifically, the implementation of an amendment to the Colorado Wage Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2015, opened an administrative process for pursuing small wage claims through the Colorado Department of Labor Employment. This process opens new pathways for low-wage workers to recoup wages.
The Legal Landscape
In recent years, Colorado has continued to address workplace rights through legislation. Previously, individuals with claims for unpaid wages could only be eligible for penalties if they made a written demand for payment within 60 days of being owed. Workers could either address these claims in court with private attorneys or a small list of pro-bono attorneys, or by themselves in small claims court. The Wage Protection Act of 2014 (SB 14-005), which amended the Colorado Wage Claims Act (CWCA), established a new administrative process through the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) for low-wage workers to pursue claims for wage theft for amounts totaling $7,500 or less. It also made workers eligible for penalties as long as they made a written demand at least two weeks before filing suit. The amended CWCA applies to private employers in Colorado, but not public employers, and does not apply to independent contractors.
Although wage theft in Colorado could be challenged as either a civil or a criminal violation, there is only one prosecutor in the state who will bring such charges, so claimants are largely left to pursue their claims in civil court. For this reason, wage theft advocates consider the most important part of the new amended CWCA to be the authority that it gives the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) to enforce the wage theft laws through a new administrative process, giving the CDLE both investigative and adjudicative powers, and the ability to levy fines and penalties. The new legislation took effect on January 1, 2015, but there is still a high degree of uncertainty surrounding the new administrative process, and whether or how the law will positively affect wage theft claimants and their advocates.
Below are stories from those who have been personally affected by wage theft:
Eduardo by Camden Bowman
When Eduardo went to work one morning, he didn't know that the man who had picked him up to work wasn't planning on paying him. On the way back to the liebre, day laborers' colloquial term for street corner hiring sites, after a hard day's work, he asked his employer if they could make a quick stop so that he could pay his phone bill, and the employer agreed. Eduardo went inside and took care of his bill, but when he came back outside the employer had left without leaving him any information concerning how Eduardo could collect his wages. Eduardo never saw him again, and had no way to get back the time and effort he had put into his work that day. To make matters worse, Eduardo was now at a store in the suburbs with no transportation back home.
The strategy that Eduardo's employer used is common. Many workers tell stories of employers who take them to banks to "take money out," tell them to go wash up, and then leave while they are not looking. Employers who steal wages also often fail to provide transportation back to the sites where they hired the workers, meaning that day laborers sometimes find themselves in faraway towns with no way to get home. Workers have to walk back to Denver from as far away as Castle Rock, and others tell stories of having been left in far-off states. Some workers live in Denver merely because someone brought them here and refused to pay them or give them transportation home.
David by Max Spiro
David once worked a job installing a washing machine, when he suffered a hernia. He went to the employer asking for help and worker's compensation, but the employer claimed that David's problem was not a result of his work. Unable to work because of the pain, David sought help. Perhaps because of his legal status, lack of health insurance, or inability to pay, David was refused service at multiple hospitals. When he finally received treatment, his medical expenses amounted to over $2,000 dollars. During this time, he was unable to work for over a month. Due to his paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, David was unable to pay his medical expenses.
David's daughter told him she didn't want a cake for her birthday, because she knew he wasn't working. David said a variety of church groups sponsored him, and he was able to raise money to pay back his medical bills. He never recovered the wages lost during his time asking for money and in the hospital.
Carlos by Morgan Brokob
When Carlos came to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico, his first stop was in New Orleans, where he worked for a month on a roofing project. He was never paid for the time and effort he spent on this job. This frustrated him because "a day of work is a day of work." Feeling as though there was nothing he could do to recuperate his wages, he started traveling across the country, eventually making his way to Denver.
Carlos said he likes living in Denver because there is plenty of work. However, the city's booming economy and the availability of jobs does not always translate into a good work environment. He has experienced wage theft several times since coming to Colorado, often involving cases of employers explicitly refusing to give workers the money they were owed. On one of these occasions, Carlos went directly to his employer's house, where he was told outright that he would not be paid.
Carlos is disillusioned with a system that privileges employers and ignores the concerns of day laborers. When asked how the system could be improved, he mentioned that it's difficult if you don't have anyone to rely on and that employers have all the power. He said a day laborer may be resolved to face an employer who did not pay, but that courage vanishes when you are face to face with the person who owes you money. His primary concern is for people to care about the challenges faced by workers like him, but such sympathy is rare since he, like so many other workers, is undocumented.
- Related Research
This project has been funded by the Public Good Fund, the Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE), the Korbel Research Fund, and the Korbel Latin America Center in addition to the Labor Research and Action Network (LRAN) and the Michael and Alice Kuhn Foundation.
DU Immigrant and Refugee Colectivo
To see more research on immigrant and refugee rights from our faculty and students, check out the DU Colectivo research digest, directed by LAC core faculty member and Associate Professor Rebecca Galemba.Click here