EL PASO, Texas - The El Paso City hall is cracking down on wage theft, adding changes to an existing ordinance that will prohibit companies in some industries from conducting business within city limits if they've been convicted of stealing wages from employees.
The council on Tuesday voted 5 to 1 to approve the tougher changes, with Rep. Michiel Noe as the only no vote. Representatives Cortney Niland and Larry Romero were absent. Romero resigned last month but is still a holdover until his seat is filled.
Businesses with a wage theft adjudication would not qualify for certain city permits, licenses or registration. The industries affected are food handling establishments, laundries, dealers of second hand goods, vendors, contractors and flea market operators.
The current city ordinance bars companies with wage theft adjudications from winning city contracts.
More than two dozen people went to the city council meeting expressing support for the ordinance expansion. "El Paso does not need employers who are thieves," UTEP Professor Kathy Staudt told the council.
City Rep. Michiel Noe raised concerns, likening the city withholding permits from companies who haven't paid their employees to debtors prison. "I don't want to prevent people from working for a crime they may not have committed," he said.
Supporters of the ordinance point out that convicting a company of wage theft is a lengthy and difficult process. "This is only targeting companies who have been ordered by an appellate court to pay wages due to employees and still don't pay," taxpayer Chris Benoit told council.
The approved changes allow companies who are denied a permit from the city to appeal by proving they have paid the employees in full, the adjudication was nullified or it has been five years since the conviction. Noe took issue that the appeal process allowed for 30 days.
The Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project, in 2011, did a study of how many workers have been victims of wage theft and say the problem is rampant. For example, they say as many as 67% of low wage workers aren't paid the overtime they're owed.
According to the study, more than 50% of low wage workers in El Paso have experienced wage theft, especially those in domestic work or construction. Christina Morales, a sociologist who worked on the study said more than half of household workers in El Paso live below the poverty level.
Wage theft convictions are rare, partly because companies can appeal pretty extensively and many workers don't file official complaints with the Texas Workforce Commission or take their employers to small claims court.
State Senator Jose Rodriguez, State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, Commissioner David Stout and Bishop Mark Seitz all wrote letters to council urging it to approve the tougher regulations.
Tuesday's approved amendment will go into effect immediately.
For more information on the City of El Paso's Wage theft Ordinance, please contact the Purchasing & Strategic Sourcing Department at (915) 212-1181.