In a firehouse in Waterbury on Thursday evening, supporters from varying organizations gathered to launch a yearlong campaign against wage theft. They urged collaboration to convince legislators to fund the hiring of more wage and hour inspectors and shared personal stories and information about workers’ rights.
“We’re working on having people share their stories so that we can take them to the legislature next year,” said Karime Pimentel in Spanish, lead organizer at the Naugatuck Valley Project, a nonprofit focused on providing resources to low-income and working families. “We’re showing up in written [testimony], through video, in-person … so that legislators know how severe the abuses are and the discrimination that our people are suffering.”
The CT Mirror previously reported that a bill that would have increased the number of wage and hour inspectors failed to pass, despite a backlog of cases.
Since 2019, over 13,000 complaints were filed to the Connecticut Department of Labor. After investigations of the cases, almost $17 million in wages were ordered to be paid back to workers.
The staff available to handle the thousands of yearly complaints hovered around two dozen, which eventually caused a four- to six-month backlog of cases, meaning many workers who filed complaints had to wait months for their cases to be investigated.
The bill would have almost doubled the number of investigators to 45 to alleviate the backlog, but it failed to advance to the House floor in face of competing interests.
And the extent of wage theft extends beyond the state to the U.S. Department of Labor, where Connecticut employers have also been ordered to pay back over $10 million since 2012.
Wage theft handled through court judgements or settlement aren’t entirely quantifiable due to how cases are recorded and some wage theft goes unreported.
Pimentel kicked off the event by celebrating the 12th anniversary of the International Domestic Workers Day, which landed on June 16, and then inviting a former domestic worker, Maribel Gomez, to share her story of an employer that would verbally and physically abuse her.
“Her daughter used to tell me, ‘If you want to keep working here with us, you have to take your gloves and mask off’” despite her employer’s illness, said Gomez. Shortly after she stopped working there, she also fell sick, ending up in the hospital for weeks. “You are working to help your family, not to get sick,” said Gomez, crying.
Maribel Rodriguez, an organizer with the state’s largest health care workers’ union, New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU 1199NE, and local president of the Western Connecticut Central Labor Coalition, emphasized the need for education around the subject.
“We must educate the public about wage theft and bring it to the forefront, so it does not happen at all,” said Rodriguez. “When we are not respected and treated fairly, it can affect every aspect of your life.”
Jaqueline Bayas, a domestic worker and part of NVP, recounted one job cleaning houses where her boss wouldn’t let her take breaks, would not pay her for all the hours she worked and stole her tips.
“I would clean four houses daily. I would leave my house at 6 a.m. and get back at 6 p.m.,” said Bayas in Spanish. “And that’s why we’re here. To invite everyone to be part of this organization, be a part of this movement, because all of us workers deserve respect, deserve to work with dignity, and we deserve to be valued. We need to combine forces and stay united to make change happen,” said Bayas.
Towards the end, Mike Iacoviello and Miguel Fuentes, members of the Carpenters Local 326 labor union, wrapped up the testimonies with informational resources and expressions of support.
“The carpenters and the Western Area Labor Federation stand with the domestic workers, because you know what we do? When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back,” said Iacoviello.
All organizations will spend the next year gathering testimonies, educating communities about their rights and contacting legislators. They emphasized that people need to know that immigration status does not play a factor in a wage theft case and that wage theft goes beyond not receiving a paycheck, but also includes illegal deductions, not receiving breaks or not getting paid overtime.
“If there’s evidence [for their cases] we teach them how to get it so they can strengthen their cases … And we have the education campaign, where we gather in homes, we go to churches, to nonprofits, everywhere,” said Pimentel.
They are also preparing for a push in next year’s short session for the failed bill that would have increased the number of wage and hour inspectors. Another option considered by advocates is to push legislators and the governor to call a special session to tackle the issue, much like occurred last fall when they addressed gasoline tax cuts and bus fares, among other things.