Giving Thought: When employers don’t pay their workers

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Ever wondered what you would do if your employer decided not to pay you? Many of us take our paychecks for granted, but not all employers are trustworthy.

Marian McDonough, Western Slope regional director for Catholic Charities, is currently sounding the alarm about wage theft, an insidious practice that makes life even harder for struggling individuals and families.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please describe wage theft and how it affects the people you work with.

Marian McDonough: Wage theft is basically the non-payment of wages, when an employer doesn’t pay a worker for some or all of the hours they worked. Sometimes they’re not receiving the minimum wage or not being paid for overtime. Sometimes waitresses or bartenders work for an establishment where the owner insists that the tips are turned over to him. It takes various forms.

We’ve been seeing victims of wage theft for the 10 years I’ve been with Catholic Charities, but we have seen an increase lately. That’s why we’ve asked ourselves what we can do to prevent more victimization.

The construction and service industries are picking up after the recession. The upside is more people are working; the downside is more people aren’t getting paid. Since January, we’ve assisted 27 families to recover more than $21,294 out of a reported $65,478 in owed wages.

ACF: What people are most vulnerable to wage theft?

MM: Immigrants and anyone with a language barrier can experience difficulties, as well as people with mental-health needs. But we see wage theft across many demographics, including students seeking summer employment.

I often hear the question, “If an employer isn’t paying, then why don’t they just work somewhere else?” But it’s not that simple. Sometimes a worker will get a paycheck for a little bit of money and then hear, “we’ll make it up to you on the next one.” It’s often a string of false promises and workers don’t really know where to turn. People with language issues may not be comfortable seeking work elsewhere. It doesn’t mean they’re not documented. They’re just fearful of losing work, or they don’t know how to advocate for themselves. They’re easy to take advantage of.

The same goes for the high school and college students. They don’t have the confidence to talk to their employer or even tell their parents — because they’re embarrassed that they’re not getting paid.

ACF: Can you outline some of the solutions?

MM: We try to empower these people. Often the first step is coaching them to go talk to their employer. If that doesn’t work, then we can get more involved. Sometimes we’ll do a mediation between an employer and somebody who is owed wages, and they’ll actually settle for a lower amount.

Now we’re trying to educate the public by talking about wage theft. We’re encouraging workers to do background checks on their potential employers and we’re encouraging people who might hire a construction or landscaping firm to check beforehand. There’s a list you can find at Click on “Wage Theft Transparency Act.” It’s not a comprehensive list — a lot of the offenders that we know aren’t listed yet — but it’s a starting point.

We’re also working with some cities around the state to pass ordinances that would make wage theft a criminal act instead of just a civil offense. We’re looking at what is working in other places, so we can explore what might work here.

ACF: What other services does Catholic Charities offer, and how does wage theft fit?

MM: Our main goal is to provide basic needs, stabilize families and try to empower people to better their lives. We have housing programs, we have emergency financial-assistance programs and we have community integration, which works primarily with immigrant populations.

Often the way we find out about wage theft is when someone comes in seeking some other form of assistance. If they’re having trouble paying their rent, for example, then we ask why. They’ll say, “Well, I haven’t been paid.”

We might help temporarily with the rent so they’re not out on the street, but we’ll also help them recoup those wages so they can be stable and not have to come back to us.

ACF: Tell us some good news from the front lines.

MM: More people are becoming aware of wage theft and we’re helping people get their money back. We have an enthusiastic, dynamic staff that’s anxious to help. And we’re blessed to have community support for the work that we do.

Just today I deposited $200 from somebody whom we had helped to recover their wages. People absolutely do give back when you help them.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.