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Immigrants vulnerable as recession spurs more bosses to shortchange workers

The nonprofit community group D.C. Jobs With Justice has launched a new effort to empower the District's low-skilled workers to fight, what appears to be a growing trend of employers skimping on wages.

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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of Latino men wearing paint-spattered jeans and grim expressions strode through Adams Morgan in search of the contractor who had cheated them. He'd hired them to remodel a wine shop in the Northwest neighborhood in November and December but paid a fraction of what he had promised before disappearing. Now they were hoping the owner of the shop could offer clues as to the contractor's whereabouts.

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Luis Colli, 33, a day laborer from Mexico, said he was owed more than $2,000 after more than a month's work. He was forced to give up his apartment in Langley Park because he couldn't make the rent, then take out a loan to cover an operation that his diabetic mother-in-law needed in Mexico.

His wife back in Mexico urged him to "let this go," Colli said in Spanish, sighing wearily as the group reached the wine shop. "But I told her: 'If I let it go, then it means I've been intimidated. If I let it go, it means there's no justice.' "

Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer with D.C. Jobs With Justice, nodded encouragingly. The morning's mission was among the first steps in a new effort the nonprofit group has launched to fight what appears to be a growing trend of employers skipping out on wages.

Although data on the prevalence of wage theft in the Washington area are not available, there are signs that the recession has prompted more employers to shortchange their workers, either by failing to pay the promised amount or by offering less than minimum wage in the first place. Construction, restaurant and janitorial workers appear particularly vulnerable, especially if they are immigrants who don't speak English or lack legal status.

Sebastian Amar, the staff attorney who handles employment cases for the immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland, said even well-intentioned employers are engaging in the practice, particularly when they run out of money in the middle of construction projects.

The Northern Virginia office of the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center just added a third lawyer to help handle its 300 annual wage-theft cases, said staff attorney Claudia Henriquez.

At the District's Office of Wage-Hour, the number of workers seeking help to recover stolen wages rose to 523 last year, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2008. And at the D.C. Employment Justice Center, a nonprofit legal clinic, the spike was almost as great, reaching 317 in that time, said Lisa Guerra, the lawyer who handles such cases.

Jobs With Justice and allied groups have responded by training low-skilled workers to help one another gather information needed to mount legal cases. Failing that, they plan to try more creative tactics: picketing recalcitrant contractors in hopes of shaming them or asking larger companies or government entities that employ bad bosses to pressure them to pay up.

"The capacity of volunteers and nonprofit staff to be able to follow through on these cases is going to be limited given how big the problem is," Baris said. "Having workers themselves be at the front line is the best way to be effective."

The magnitude of the challenge was evident as soon as she and the workers entered the wine shop. Colli, who in Mexico was able to study only through elementary school, began a hesitant explanation of the purpose of their visit, which another organizer translated into English. To Colli's relief, the owner of the wine shop responded with a sympathetic smile. The contractor had cheated him as well, he said, charging $35,000 above the initial bid before leaving the job unfinished.

"I'm trying to find him, too," he said. But he had little additional information to offer: a bank account number and the name and phone number of the contractor's accountant.


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