Businesses that short their workers no longer protected by “trade secrets” law

Finding out which businesses cheat workers out of their fairly-earned wages – whether making them work off the clock, not paying overtime or not paying them at all – has been next to impossible in Colorado for 100 years. State law allows that information to stay secret under the guise of “trade secrets.”

But those who treat their workers fairly claim that creates an unfair competitive advantage, and teamed up with lawmakers at the state Capitol to open up the books.

The Wage Theft Transparency Act lacks only the signature of the governor to become official. Under the proposed law, violations of Colorado’s wage laws will now become a matter of public record, open to anyone who asks the Department of Labor and Employment for that information. The bill’s House sponsor, Democratic Rep. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, told The Colorado Independent she believes the governor will sign the measure in the coming weeks.

The way the law works now: the department investigates claims of wage theft and makes a decision about whether the business has committed a violation. Currently, if the department determines the business has violated the law, that information is kept confidential.

The department reported 274 violations of the state’s wage theft laws in 2016, with the number of claims increasing as the year progressed. In 2015, the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute estimated Colorado workers are cheated out of $750 million per year in wages.

The session marked the second time around for the measure, which died in 2016 despite strong bipartisan support in the House but even stronger opposition from businesses both large and small.

Danielson went back to basics during the 2016 summer and found not only a compromise with the business community but a Senate sponsor, Republican Sen. John Cooke of Greeley, who carried the bill over the finish line in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it had died the year before.

Current law shields bad actors, Danielson told The Independent. Even the state’s open records act, which usually allows the public to obtain information held by state agencies, can’t be used as a way of getting that information, she said. Prospective employees and consumers who want to make sure they avoid doing business with companies that don’t follow wage laws can’t find that out, either. “If a company has no incentive to stop doing what they’re doing, they’ll keep swindling their workers,” she said.

“We can’t solve the problem until we can identify it,” Danielson explained. From the perspective of workers, the law is helpful in discouraging employers from shorting their workers on pay. Good businesses will no longer have to fear an unfair advantage with business that do cheat their workers. “It puts all businesses on the same playing field,” she said.


Photo credit: CC by Bread for the World, Creative Commons license, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.