Citizens, advocacy groups gather outside City Hall as part of campaign against wage theft

Mitzi Perez/Staff

Dozens of concerned citizens, government officials and advocacy groups gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday to participate in a campaign against wage theft.

The event was organized by Stop Wage Theft in California, a project of Smart Cities Prevail, which is a leading construction industry research and advocacy organization.

According to Frank Nunes, director of Smart Cities Prevail, wage theft constitutes either the failure to pay employees the hours they worked or paying them less than they were promised or legally owed.

Nunes added that wage theft in the construction industry currently amounts to an annual cost of $1.2 billion for workers and $774 million for taxpayers. Moreover, estimates suggest that one in six California construction workers currently face some form of wage theft, he said.

“The overwhelming message is that when you have so many people breaking the law, it encourages more people to break (it),” said Todd Stenhouse, media representative for Smart Cities Prevail.

Derek Schoonmaker — senior staff attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, an organization that serves hundreds of low-wage workers — explained that he had multiple clients this year who were victims of wage theft and consequently could not pay their rent and ultimately lost their homes.

When workers come forward with allegations of wage theft, employers often respond with threats, according to Schoonmaker.

“(Legal actions) have serious obstacles — they aren’t available to all workers, and they won’t be successful for all workers, and that’s why local responses are so critical,” Schoonmaker said.

Stenhouse noted that citizens cannot rely on the federal government to police every aspect of wage theft. In order to stop wage theft, the policy needs to be enforced on a local level.

As an attempt to address the issue, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli drafted an ordinance that would help remedy the problem in Berkeley. The ordinance would mandate that any developer who wants to construct major developments in Berkeley needs to provide proof of compliance with state labor laws.

“Berkeley isn’t going to solve this problem. What I am hoping is that this ordinance … will be a model to duplicate across the state.” Capitelli said. He added that if City Council passed the ordinance, Berkeley would be one of the first cities in California to enact such an ordinance.

Also present at the campaign were Councilmember Darryl Moore and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who both voiced their support against wage theft.

The combined efforts of officials — from law enforcement to local government — demonstrates the joint effort necessary to stymie such a complex issue, Nunes said.

“Anyone who has worked in construction can tell you that many hands make light work,” he said.

Brenna Smith covers business and the economy. Contact her at [email protected].