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Cincinnati pallet workers recover $27,000 in wage theft dispute

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On July 3, nine workers in Cincinnati received lump-sum payments averaging $3,000 each as compensation for wage theft by their employer, Queen City Pallets. The company misclassified the workers as independent contractors, and denied them overtime wages for hours worked in excess of 40 a week.

Classifying full-time workers as contractors is tactic frequently used by employers to avoid complying with labor laws. The nine workers at Queen City Pallets were full-time employees in every sense: they built and repaired pallets under the company's direct supervision, clocked in and out at times set by the company, took breaks only when permitted by the company, and worked with tools and equipment provided by the company.

Undocumented immigrants are frequently targets of wage theft because employers assume that they won't stand up for themselves. When the Queen City Pallets workers complained about not getting overtime pay, "they didn't say directly that we didn't have rights," said Juan, who asked that his real name not be used. "But they let us know that they thought we were undocumented, and implied that we didn't have any rights."

The workers took their complaint to the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center (CIWC) after hearing about it from a friend. "They supported us by telling us that even though we are undocumented, we have rights as workers," Juan said.

The CIWC's team of organizers and attorneys gave the workers the information they needed to negotiate directly with the employer for their back pay. On February 19, they sat down on the job until their bosses agreed to negotiate. "They stayed together in defense of their rights, in the face of empty threats at work after coming forward," said CIWC organizer Manuel Perez. "This generated a quick resolution and a wage theft victory."

It took nearly five months for Juan and the other workers to receive their overtime pay from Queen City Pallets. Juan supports a family with his wages, and during the wage theft dispute he worried about losing his job. All nine of the workers are now employed by other companies. "The most important thing in resolving this case the was the unity among the workers," Perez said. "The leadership that Juan took on was also very important."

The CIWC assisted in another wage theft case involving Queen City Pallets in 2008. The center has forwarded information about both cases to the Federal Department of Labor, demanding an investigation and recovery of back wages for all Queen City Pallets employees.

A 2009 study found that low-wage workers lose an average of $2,634 a year from wage theft. The CIWC estimates that wage theft accounts for $52 million a year of lost wages in Cincinnati.

"This is harmful to our local economy," said CIWC Executive Director Sameerah Ahmad. "It puts more pressure on the Cincinnati community to provide public assistance to workers who can't make ends meet. It's also unfair to honest companies who don't engage in wage theft."

Since it started in 2005, the CIWC has recovered over $700,000 in stolen wages. But dealing with wage theft one case at a time through direct action is time-consuming. While it can get results for the workers involved, it barely makes a dent in the overall problem. In January CIWC members voted to bring city government into the picture by advocating for a wage theft ordinance similar to those passed in Chicago, Grand Rapids, and Miami Dade County.

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