Without Pay, It’s Just Work

Somos un Pueblo Unido

Wednesday afforded us the opportunity to head north, taking in the sites, sounds and eats of charming Santa Fe. Before going forth into the city for a leisurely afternoon, we had the great pleasure of spending time at Somos un Pueblo Unido, a non-profit organization with the purpose of giving people power against unjust laws and working conditions.

Of the measurable positive impact Somos has had on 10 counties in the 33-county state, perhaps the area of greatest effort has been on wage theft. A term many are likely unfamiliar with, wage theft is the act of an employer withholding pay owed to a worker. The most common form of wage theft is accomplished by compensating an employee with less than minimum wage. In spite of being the poorest state in our country, New Mexico has a diamond in the rough: Santa Fe now holds claim to offering the highest minimum wage rate – $10.66/hour – in the entire country (kudos to Somos for leading the charge on petitioning, legalizing and implementing this change). And yet, many workers are still struggling to be given what is owed to them.

In New Mexico alone, one in four immigrant workers face wage theft. Of those, only 12% have sought legal assistance for back pay and/or settlement damages. Of the 12%, only four cases have been awarded retribution.

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Undocumented workers may face an even more dismal fate. Threat of being exposed, and ultimately deported, become justified tactics by employers wishing to withhold pay. Immigrants may be deemed “day workers” to avoid being paid for actual hours on the job (i.e., think being expected to arrive at 6AM when “clock time” begins at 8AM). Employers may label a mandatory learning period as “training” so as to avoid compensating the employee (which, by the way, is illegal). Employers may also draft a policy against paying overtime, when in fact, employees are required/expected to work far more than 40 hours each week.

While wage theft has greatly impacted the immigrant workers of New Mexico, it is not a problem unique to the Southwest. Construction workers, landscapers and dairy workers, to name a few, may all fall victim to employer wage theft, even in Wisconsin. So, what can one do?

Start by becoming an ally to organizations like Somos un Pueblo Unido. Educate yourself on the issues that affect your neighbors, your allies and your community. Strength is found in numbers; there certainly is no shortage of workers needing help, even in our local communities.

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