CTUL report spotlights severity of challenges facing low-wage workers

More than 80 percent of Twin Cities low-wage workers recently surveyed for a study on working conditions reported having to work two jobs to make ends meet and nearly half have experienced wage theft by employers. 

The findings are documented in the report, “Confronting Exploitation: The Face of Low-Wage Work in the Twin Cities,” released Thursday by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha  (CTUL), a Minneapolis-based workers advocacy group.

CTUL partnered with the Advocates for Human Rights to analyze 173 surveys completed by low-wage workers in a variety of industries, including janitorial services, restaurants, retail, construction, manufacturing, hospitality and temp work.

Wage theft among janitors was especially prevalent with two-thirds reporting instances of not being paid for hours clocked.

The average annual salary for workers surveyed was $14,737, 64 percent lacked paid sick time and 42 percent reported not having enough time for families given the struggles of juggling two jobs. Nearly half of the survey participants work for subcontractors, making it a complicated process to address workplace grievances.         

Overall, 42 percent of Minneapolis jobs pay less than $40,000 a year, a level considered a family-supporting wage, according to the CTUL report. 

          

Lucila Dominguez, a member of the CTUL board of directors, said the organization formed a Workplace Rights Defenders Program in June 2014 to help educate workers about their rights.

CTUL has also helped workers recover more than $1.8 million in stolen wages in the past eight years. 

“The worker’s voice really needs to be lifted up right now and into the future,” she said during a conference call with reporters. 

The report includes several stories from workers detailing instances of exploitation. For instance, Cecilia Guzman was successful in winning a legal battle over $4,750 in unpaid wages for work done doing cleanup in Minneapolis for a painting company, but she still hasn’t been paid.

“One year later, I still haven’t received a penny,” she wrote. “We need laws that actually help to end wage theft. It is unacceptable that even after all I have been through and even having won my case, I am still in debt and the bosses who haven’t paid me still haven’t felt the consequences of their action.”

A study cited by the CTUL report of low-wage workers in three metro areas found that on average, a worker had $2,634 in unpaid wages owed to them over the course of a year.

Terin Mayer, lead organizer of CTUL’s Workplace Rights Defenders Program, said empowering workers with information about their rights is crucial and encouraging them to overcome fears of confronting their employers, which can be a big issue.

Many workers have shared stories of facing termination and other forms of retaliation for making complaints. Some have also faced threats from supervisors who have told them they would call the police or immigration agencies about the workers.

CTUL’s Workplace Rights Defenders Program outlined a series of recommendations in the program to address the problems, including creating more opportunities for workers to be educated about their rights and stepped up enforcement of existing labor laws.

The organization suggested businesses licenses issued by local governments should be connected to labor standards and companies that repeatedly commit wage theft shouldn’t be allowed to remain in business.

CTUL also urged workers to form unions and called on government officials to include more low-wage workers in policy discussions.

Michelle Garnett McKenzie, advocacy director for the Advocates for Human Rights, commended CTUL for its work collecting surveys and stories from workers. 

“Labor exploitation is, at its heart, a human rights issue,” she said. “Locally, as well as nationally, we have a complex, outdated worker protection system exacerbated by a fissured workplace. The analysis contained in this report is a huge step forward in articulating these complaints accurately, which is helpful for enforcement agencies and public policy advocates alike.”

The report comes two days after hundreds of workers from more than 70 stores in the metro area went on strike to call attention to poor working conditions. A large group of workers and activists marched to City Hall to demand attention to their struggles. 

City Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) said city leaders are looking at ways to address the wage theft problem.

“Nothing specific has been proposed yet, but one option is to set up a more formal partnership with the state agency that investigates and enforces wage and hour violations, so that if our staff identifies or receives potential complaints they can work directly with the state on this,” she said.