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Workers gain wage protection

Law to take effect Jan. 1
The Colorado Legislature this year passed a measure to protect workers from wage theft, which takes full effect on Jan. 1.

DENVER – A law that seeks to protect workers from wage theft will take full effect Jan. 1, creating enhanced oversight on bad actors within the business world.

The bill passed the Legislature earlier this year after attempts in previous years failed. Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, the bill’s sponsor, compromised with business interests, which largely went neutral on the bill this year.

Ulibarri removed criminal provisions from the measure, focusing mostly on companies that knowingly hold back earnings from workers. In some cases, employers mistakenly hold wages, but Ulibarri made sure the bill did not target those instances.

The law authorizes the Department of Labor and Employment to establish an administrative process for wage-theft cases in order to expedite claims by workers who say they did not receive their full compensation. It takes many matters out of the hands of the courts, which can take time.

The state is required to investigate all wage-theft cases up to $7,500 per employee, which represents the maximum sum in nearly all wage-theft cases.

The law also allows the state to reduce penalties for employers who pay past due wages swiftly and in good faith.

“Coloradans who work a hard day’s work, deserve a fair day’s pay,” Ulibarri said. “When folks agree to do the dignified work of picking a field, building a house, or even of showing up and flipping burgers, they should be treated with dignity.”

The issue can particularly affect immigrant workers, who may not speak fluent English and are easy targets.

Danny Quinlan, executive director of Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center, said his organization supports the law.

“This is absolutely fantastic,” Quinlan said. “It’s a huge step forward for all working people in the state. People who work hard deserve their pay, and this is a great step.”

He has seen the problem affect not only immigrants, but also Native Americans in Southwest Colorado.

Examples include employers forcing workers to work after they have clocked out; requiring overtime without just compensation; refusing to pay full wages earned; withholding gratuities; and violating minimum-wage laws.

The Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, estimated that workers in the U.S. annually lose $19 billion in unpaid overtime, alone. In 2011, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment heard from more than 5,200 workers who had wage theft claims.

“Regardless of immigration status, regardless of national origin, that hurts us all,” Quinlan said. “If there’s an employer out there who is trying to undercut the honest business ... by these practices, that’s driving down wages for everyone else. That hurts us all.”

Ulibarri expressed similar thoughts, pointing to the unfair advantage certain bad actors get by employing such practices.

“Wage theft is bad for business, and it’s bad for workers,” Ulibarri said. “The Wage Protection Act is needed to protect workers and honest employers.”


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