Last month, 16 Indianapolis hotel workers settled what the labor union Unite Here is calling an “historic lawsuit” against their employer, the staffing subcontractor Hospitality Staffing Solutions (HSS).
The workers, most of whom were Hispanic immigrants employed as housekeepers, dishwashers and bussers, maintain that HSS forced them to work off the clock and without breaks. The employer failed to compensate workers for overtime, and extra work sometimes pushed their hourly earnings below minimum wage.
The lawsuit is notable because, while these kinds of illegal wage violations are common in low-wage work settings, most go unreported. Victims fear retaliation because many are stuck in low-paying jobs they cannot afford to lose or are vulnerable because they are unable to speak English.
Labor unions offer one of the few protections low-wage workers have against wage theft, according to “The Movement to End Wage Theft,” a 2011 report commissioned by the non-profit Discount Foundation, which focuses on labor issues. The author of the wage theft report, Nik Theodore, associate professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote that even if workers are not unionized, close working relationships with labor unions are a feature of many campaigns against wage-theft.
In the case of the Indianapolis hotel workers, even though they were not members when they were working for HSS, Unite Here assisted them in filing their lawsuit by offering transportation and interpreter services. Unite Here also helped the workers find legal representation.
Sixty-eight percent of low-wage workers said they had experienced at least one wage violation in the previous week, according to an intensive labor study titled “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers.” This theft amounted to roughly 15 percent their total earnings, according to the study’s authors at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois Chicago, the National Employment Law Project and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.
Wage theft includes violations of minimum wage laws, unpaid overtime, shortened or nonexistent meal breaks, illegal deductions from paychecks and any other practice that deprives workers of the wages they have earned.
Unite Here said that, though the terms of the settlement are confidential, the lawsuit has already helped improve working conditions in the city’s hospitality industry. The challenge to HSS exposed many common forms of wage theft, and while HSS maintains that it was unaware of any wage and hour violations, many Indianapolis hotels already have severed ties with the agency.
Some of the plaintiffs now are working to organize other workers, and through the lawsuit, “hospitality workers have garnered wide-spread community and political support for their organizing efforts,” according to Unite Here.
Posted January 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm, in Union Matters