Group wants protections for illegal employees |

Group wants protections for illegal employees

Catholic Charities is seeking local support for a way to punish employers that stiff employees who are in the country illegally or are at some other disadvantage.Tom Ziemann, director of Catholic Charities-Western Slope, said his caseworkers are handling an increasing number of complaints from workers who claim they were hired and worked for two or three weeks, but weren’t paid. Often the bosses know or suspect the workers are in the country illegally. The illegal immigrants are reluctant to seek help from government agencies for fear of deportation.”These people are getting away with murder, actually,” Ziemann said of the employers. The offending businesses tend to be maid services or construction subcontractors, he said.He told the Pitkin County commissioners in a meeting Tuesday that he regularly discloses the problem in talks with service groups and finds surprise “that this goes on in our valley.” He wasn’t able to document how many complaints his staff has fielded from employees who claim they were shortchanged, but he said it is a significant part of the caseload. Ziemann supervises offices in Glenwood Springs and Avon.”It happens all over the state, all over the country,” Ziemann said.In other labor confrontations, employees and employers might have a dispute over the number of hours worked or the hourly wage – legitimate misunderstandings that don’t necessarily have racial overtones. But in many cases, employers are clearly trying to take advantage of illegal immigrants, Ziemann said.The employees can file a complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The agency might investigate the complaint and levy a fine, but it can’t enforce a fine if a violator doesn’t pay, according to Ziemann.Another option for employees is to take the employer to small-claims court when disputed amounts are less than $7,500. Even when an employee wins a judgment, employers can find a way around paying, like declaring bankruptcy in some cases, Ziemann said. He cited the case of a Rifle woman who hired maids but wouldn’t pay them after three weeks of work. Twenty maids claimed in a lawsuit that they were cheated out of pay and won a judgment. The business owner claimed she didn’t have the funds to pay the workers.Ziemann said his office is receiving complaints again that the woman is doing the same thing.”There are crimes being committed, but there’s no justice being served,” he said.Catholic Charities tries to get employers and employees into mediation. If that fails, it will help them file small-claims lawsuits.Catholic Charities, an arm of the Archdiocese of Denver, wants local governments, businesses and nonprofits to work together to tackle the problem. One idea is producing a statewide database of employers who are known to take advantage of workers. Ziemann said his organization is checking the legal issues of producing such a list.Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland said he supports using the media to publicize employers who are found guilty of unlawfully withholding pay from workers. That serves as an effective deterrent, he said.Catholic Charities has also lobbied for legislation that gives more “teeth” to labor department efforts to take enforcement action. So far that legislation has failed.The county commissioners were sympathetic but unable to offer any concrete ways they could help the effort.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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