Complaints about unpaid wages among Latinos in central Iowa have sharply increased in the past four months, immigrant advocates say, mirroring the abuses done to Latino workers by Agriprocessors and the Rubashkin family.
Growing number of Latino workers report they aren't paid wages
JENS MANUEL KROGSTAD • DES MOINES REGISTER
Complaints about unpaid wages among Latinos in central Iowa have sharply increased in the past four months, immigrant advocates say.
The surge, fueled by increased coverage of the issue in the Latino press, has allowed Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement to recoup more than $80,000 in unpaid wages from 11 employers since October.
"It's either a growing problem, or it's a problem that's getting exposed, and we're seeing a lot of it," said CCI development director Sharon Zanders- Ackiss, whose group fields wage complaint calls daily.
Dave Neil, the departing state labor commissioner, said wage complaints often take months to reach the desk of the one state employee who juggles about 175 cases at once.
A bill that Neil says would speed the complaint process has reached the Republican-controlled House, where its prospects are unclear. It passed the Senate on March 8 with support only from Democrats.
The bill, now under consideration by a House labor subcommittee, would require employers to notify employees in writing of their wages and deductions. The law would also prohibit an employer from firing or discriminating against anyone who assists in a wage investigation.
The Iowa Association of Business and Industry said it has lobbied against the bill because it says the change would place additional regulations on businesses without preventing dishonest businesses from not paying workers.
The Des Moines Register in October reported that the federal government and others were investigating a growing number of wage theft cases and that, in many areas of the state, the problems commonly involved immigrant workers in low-paying jobs.
CCI officials said that workers are often frustrated by the slow progress of their cases and by employers who refuse to pay or routinely promise wages that never arrive.
"This is shameful what's being done," said Zanders-Ackiss. "It's not right. Just like all of us that are earning our paychecks, we want to get paid."
Vidalina, a 40-year-old kitchen worker, said she is owed one month's pay by Copa Cavana, a Cuban restaurant in Des Moines. The single mother said she filed a wage claim with the state in January, but it has not been investigated because of the backlog of cases.
She declined to provide her surname because she worked in the country illegally and fears deportation.
Since then, 12 former workers of the restaurant have come to CCI with complaints of unpaid wages. A Copa Cavana owner said he is working to resolve the problems.
At a meeting Wednesday night with state and federal labor officials at CCI's Des Moines office, Vidalina looked Neil in the eye and pleaded for his agency to look into her case.
"I want you to force these people to pay me. It's not fair that they haven't paid me. I deserve these wages," she said through an interpreter.
Others in the crowd of nearly 50 people demanded the agency take immediate action on several cases.
"I'm getting sick and tired of passing the buck. We need justice out there," said Larry Ginter, 71, a retired farmer from Rhodes.
Neil initially bristled at the criticism, reminding the crowd he was not the enemy.
With the backlog of cases, he told Vidalina, she would have "to get in line just like everybody else."
The most time-consuming part of investigations is determining what an employee was supposed to be paid, said Neil, who leaves his job on April 29, when Michael Mauro, Gov. Terry Branstad's appointee, will replace him.
He said one of his greatest frustrations is spending months investigating a company, bringing it "to the altar of the court," then watching the company avoid payment by filing for bankruptcy.
He cited Agriprocessors, the defunct meatpacking plant in Postville, as an example. The company never paid $265,000 it owed in back wages after it filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
"Every worker, I don't care who they are, is entitled to fair pay and fair wages and to be paid on time, regardless of their nationality," Neil said. "They're also entitled to a safe and healthy workplace, regardless of whether they're legal or illegal."
State Sen. Bill Dotzler, a key supporter of Senate File 311, said the change would place the burden of proof on the employer to show an employee is being paid a full wage. If an employee files a complaint, he said, the law would require an employer to present a document signed by the employee that defines the wages and allowed deductions.
"I think it's common sense for a business person to do these things," said Dotzler, D-Waterloo. "We think any HR manager worth their salt would make sure their employees knew what they were getting paid."
Rep. Lance Horbach, R-Tama, who chairs the House Labor Committee, said he could not comment on the future of the bill because his committee has not studied it yet.
The Iowa Association of Business and Industry argues that placing the burden of proof on employers would be unfair to businesses that have made an honest mistake, said John Gilliland, senior vice president for government relations.
Most businesses that belong to the association already practice what the bill would require, Gilliland said.
Those that don't require an employee to sign a document stating agreed-upon wages usually fall into two categories: small-business owners who made a mistake and will try to rectify the problem, and crooks who will skirt the law when a state labor official starts an investigation, he said.
"Our concern is they want to add more steps and regulation to the process to go after folks like in Postville," he said. "Adding more burdens and regulations isn't going to change that behavior."
Supporters of the bill say Iowa's laws have fallen behind those in other states that have stiffened penalties for employers who do not pay employees for the hours they work.
Employers in Iowa can be fined $500 for each violation, which can include not paying full wages.
Since 2009, at least five states have set aside more money for enforcement and increased penalties for employers who don't pay the minimum wage or overtime.
To gain bipartisan support, Dotzler said, Democratic lawmakers removed provisions from the proposed wage law that would have allowed tougher monetary penalties against employers. Fines would have been capped at twice the amount of owed wages.
Frustrated with slow progress on protecting worker wages, officials of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement say they have resorted to publicly shaming employers.
Two community organizers blanketed the Ingersoll Avenue business district last week to demand wages owed by Copa Cavana.
When they couldn't locate the restaurant owners, the pair visited 16 neighboring businesses to explain their complaints and left letters with four others.
Lou Parks, an investor in the restaurant, said the problem stems back to a previous manager who handled payroll. The man left the country about two months ago to visit family and never returned to the company, he said.
Parks said any employee who is owed wages should visit the restaurant or CCI to arrange to receive back wages. Employees have been paid in full since he started taking an active role in the company about a month ago, he said.
"We're not trying to duck and dodge. Never did we not want to pay the employees," he said.
The amount of money mentioned above owed Agriprocessors' workers is a small fraction of what Agriprocessors actually owes, because the time period covered in the state's investigation is small and does not cover the years the Rubashkin family shorted workers' paychecks and withheld their last paychecks.