Marcelino Lagunez, 51, works as a day laborer in Denver so he can send money back to his family in Mexico. Without legal status he struggles to make even minimum wage, so when his employer shorted him for $400 in 2014, Lagunez took every step he could to recover his stolen wages.
“This always happens because there are always more workers,” Lagunez explained in Spanish. “But I did the work, so he needed to pay.”
Through day laborer organization El Centro Humanitario, Lagunez met the wage theft lawyers and advocates at Towards Justice, who fight for folks from all backgrounds when their employers haven’t paid them for their work.
However, because the sum he’d been shorted was relatively small, Lagunez didn’t have access to legal recourse in court. Together with Towards Justice he worked to negotiate for the pay he was still owed from two bum checks, but after weeks of efforts he regained less than half of the $400.
“I think they’re truly a good organization and they fought for justice,” said Lagunez. “But in my case they could have had more power, more efficacy.”
Though it’s too late for Lagunez, a new law that went into effect at the beginning of this year will give employees a better shot at recovering their stolen wages in the future.
“Before people were stuck with very few options. The courts were just too complex and expensive for smaller cases,” said Alex Hood, Towards Justice‘s director of litigation, who negotiated on Lagunez’s behalf.
If Lagunez walked through the door today, said Hood, he’d have more options.
“The best thing to do now is use the new Colorado Department of Labor administrative policy,” said Hood. “They’re not just negotiating. They have a power to enter a judgment that would be just like a court judgment saying that an employer owes an employee ‘x’ amount of money and if necessary you could then take that to collections.”
Hood said the shift, which is the result of a 2014 bill to increase protections for low-wage workers, will make a huge difference for the countless Lagunezes who walk through Towards Justice’s doors each month.
“The less empowered the person, the more common wage theft is,” said Hood. “If someone’s making $200,000 a year and they don’t get paid for half the year, that person will find an attorney and fight. If you’re making $7 an hour for a week of work and the employer doesn’t pay you at the end, there aren’t a ton of options for help, and it’s not always obvious to that population where to go for help.”
All told, The Colorado Fiscal Institute estimates that some $750 million in wages are stolen from Colorado workers each year.
Despite the fact that the Department of Labor now has a much more effective process for handling wage-theft complaints, Hood said he still recommends that workers who think they’ve been ripped off by their employers talk to Towards Justice first.
“Sometimes we have people come in who claim they’re owed very small amounts of money,” said Hood. “But after some analysis… maybe they were never paid overtime and are owed a much more substantial amount of money.”
In cases like that, where an employee is owed many thousands of dollars, Hood said the lawyers at Towards Justice do consider going straight to court.
Towards Justice regularly holds bilingual wage-theft clinics around the state to educate laborers about their rights and to connect victims with pro bono lawyers and trained labor advocates. The next clinic is in Dillon, Colorado at the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church on June 16, at 6pm.