Kansas City Worker Justice Center envisions a just future for low-income workers

Note: Megan Hope is a board member of Kansas City Worker Justice Center, the subject of this article.

By Megan Hope

Lucky for Alberto Quiroz, Ray Rojas’ grandfather had a big mouth.

The elder Rojas fled to the United States around the time General Victoriano Huerta staged a coup d’état and established a harsh military dictatorship in Mexico. Huerta was soon driven out by revolutionaries Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and others, whose support of the rural working class better expressed Rojas’ views. But too outspoken to continue living peacefully in their hometown, Rojas and his family left and resettled in El Paso, Texas.

Some 60 years later, grandson Ray Rojas was born.

“I come from a long line of Baptists from Torreon [in the northern Mexican state of Coaquila],” Ray explains.

He grew up watching his grandparents and parents exercise their faith by helping people, especially the poor. Later, while an anthropology student at the University of Texas-El Paso, Ray was involved in a Chicano student group that provided him with good mentors in community organizing.

“Everywhere I go,” he explains, “I find people in trouble to help.”

In the Midwest, the people he found were low-income workers, like Alberto Quiroz. Alberto came from Mexico in 2005, desperate to earn money to get treatment for his sick son. A company called 1 Source Staffing and Labor in Kansas hired him for what he understood would be a six-week cleaning job in Miami. After just a week, however, he and the other workers were returned to Kansas, and Alberto received a paycheck for only half the hours he had worked.

Alberto learned that Ray could help him. Ray had recently finished law school at the University of Kansas, where he and fellow students and others had established a project called Apoyo Trabajador, or Migrant Worker Solidarity. Apoyo Trabajdor reached out to the growing immigrant community in Lawrence, offering help to workers who had been abused by their employers. Their phone number reached Kansas City, and calls began flooding in.

So in September 2005, Ray and his friends offered their first workers rights legal clinic in Kansas City at one of El Centro, Inc.’s buildings. The two-hour clinics, held on the third Monday evening of each month, offer workers an opportunity to talk to a volunteer intake staff and attorneys about wage theft and other employment problems. Depending on the nature of the case and applicable state laws (which vary between Kansas and Missouri), attorneys can help the worker fill out a complaint form to be submitted to the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor (DOL) in Kansas City or other appropriate administrative agency; help the worker draft a letter to the employer, asking for a resolution of the problem; or refer the worker to another lawyer or other source of assistance.

In Alberto’s case, a wage claim and a follow-up phone call to 1 Source Staffing and Labor by a DOL representative resulted in full payment of the wages he was owed. Some media attention probably didn’t hurt, either. Shortly after Alberto’s troubles, another 1 Source worker appeared at the Westside Community Action Network Center, where many Kansas City day laborers gather for assistance, with a similar complaint. Center director Lynda Callon called Fox 4 News, and an exposé ran on TV. The second worker had had excessive “fees” deducted from his paycheck for transportation and other expenses related to his stint in Florida. The office manager of 1 Source told Fox 4 that it was all a miscommunication.

Such workers’ stories—and such responses from employers—are typical of what’s seen every month at the workers’ rights clinics. Wage theft is the most common complaint and assumes a variety of forms. Sometimes the worker is paid with a hot check. The employer might withhold pay for a job he claims is unsatisfactorily done, or fire a crew right before they finish, replace them with other workers, and stiff both groups. Sometime workers bring their own tools and equipment with them to jobs, but are later accused by employers of stealing items—and this becomes the excuse not to pay.

Other times, the employer gives all the pay to just one worker and instructs him to “divide it up” among the others. An employer shows up needing workers immediately and the workers, needing work immediately, pile into the back of a truck, not sure where they are headed, what they’ll be doing, or when they’ll be paid. This makes reconstructing their work experience difficult. Especially if they are new to town or are working in a new subdivision without addresses, they have a hard time identifying the location of their work. Because the person who paid (or didn’t pay) them is often a subcontractor, they don’t know who their actual employer was. Some employers make it even harder by using different names for their companies, or handing out business cards with incorrect addresses.

Cultural differences can work to the disadvantage of low-income workers, especially immigrants. “I’ve heard that in Mexico, it isn’t uncommon for a person to work one day and be paid later—but that they do get paid,” says Muneer Ahmad, a volunteer attorney who frequently works at the worker rights clinics.

Newly arrived immigrants and indigenous people from Latin America (who may not speak much Spanish, let alone English) seem particularly vulnerable to “landlord-employer” situations, says Ray. Owners of Chinese restaurants are notorious for this arrangement. They recruit workers as kitchen staff, then assign them a place to live and treat them essentially as indentured servants, controlling where they go, garnishing their wages, or committing other abuses.

Ray and other clinic volunteers have seen cases of injured immigrant workers dropped off at the emergency room by their employer and told not to report back to work. Upon hearing that their employee has made a complaint, some bosses will stalk the worker and threaten to call the police or the immigration service if they don’t stop talking. The same employer who was not bothered by the immigrant’s lack of documentation when hired suddenly uses it as a license to not pay.

***

And that’s a violation of not only human rights, but also the law. Undocumented and documented workers alike are protected by a number of federal labor laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act that requires employers to pay covered employees a minimum wage, pay them for all the hours worked in a workweek, and, in general, time and a half for overtime hours. Undocumented workers are also protected under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which requires employers and farm labor contractors to pay the wages owed to migrant or seasonal agricultural workers when the payments are due. These laws are among those that the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing.

Unfortunately, however, some employers know how to get around the law. For example, they will misclassify a worker as an “independent contractor,” because independent contractors do not have the same labor protections as other employees. Unpaid wages to an independent contractor are considered a contract dispute; contracts with low-income workers are usually verbal, and an employer can easily claim that it was the worker’s lack of English skills or lack of understanding that is to blame.

Remedies to this and some other pay problems vary according to state law. In Kansas, an unpaid worker can file a wage claim with the state department of labor, bring a wage claim in a district court, or go to small claims court—but without an attorney. In Missouri, there is no “paycheck law.” A worker and his/her advocates can write a letter threatening to make a police report about the theft, but there is no prosecutorial process for this. The worker can also go to small claims court, but must pay a court fee, servicing fee, and garnishing fee and, if needed, find and pay for a certified translator. In either state, the worker does have the right to put a lien against the employer—something most employees are unaware of and need training to do.

***

The “push” factors that drive Alberto and other immigrant workers toward precarious work situations include poverty in their home countries where, in most cases, international “development” processes have failed. International Monetary Fund, World Bank and trade policies have weakened countries’ economies (including job opportunities in the public sector) and labor protections. Trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) undermine the agricultural economies of developing countries and cause massive internal and external migration of displaced workers. Far from stemming international migration, unbalanced economic globalization has caused a proliferation of moving workers.

But “pull” factors are also responsible for the conflicts between workers like Alberto and employers like 1 Source. Since the early 1980s, employers and government policy in the U.S. have driven down labor standards through downsizing, subcontracting, outsourcing, and off-shoring; failing to enforce federal labor protections; busting unions; and denying workers the right to organize. Although immigrants are often blamed for ruining wages in meatpacking, construction, and hospitality, the truth is that the attack on labor standards, the dropping of wages, and the de-unionization process in all these industries happened before immigrants filled their ranks.

Temporary agencies allow employers to avoid laws that apply to other workers. But there are other incentives to run a temp agency. Welfare and other government agencies contract with them, and temp agencies are eligible for Work Opportunity and Welfare-to-Work tax credits. Kansas regulates temp agencies but other states, like Missouri, do not.

Employers have multiple motivations for not paying or not fully paying employees. They may do it to compensate for a failing, undercapitalized business, or to be able to compete with and outbid other employers. Some of the same practices that are convenient for workers, like getting paid in cash, make it convenient for employers to dodge authorities.

But mainly, as clinic volunteer and attorney Heber Gonzalez puts it, “They know they can get away with it.” Employers assume that it won’t be worth the time, difficulty, and money for a worker to bring a $1,000 or even $5,000 claim against them, he says. Lawyers know this, too, and that’s why most employment attorneys don’t take on wage claims. “But,” adds Heber, “$1,000 is a lot of money if you’re raising a family.”
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By spring 2006, Ray decided it was time to formalize and expand the effort. He met with old law school friends, worker advocates, and activists from immigrant and other minority communities to assemble a volunteer board for what is now known as the Kansas City Worker Justice Center (KCWJC).

While he was in law school, Ray followed the rise of worker centers throughout the United States. The trend was a community-based and community-led response to industrial restructuring and deregulation, and the decline in government resources spent to enforce wage and hour laws. Worker centers operated with a philosophy that what is bad for undocumented immigrants and other low-income workers is bad for all workers: If employers are allowed to violate core laws, standards throughout the entire labor market are threatened.

The Westside Community Action Network (CAN) Center in Kansas City is one example of a worker center that acknowledges our economy’s longtime dependence on day laborers in a practical and humane way. The center provides a place for workers to use a kitchen, bathroom, and phone. Community police officers stationed there ensure the safety of the workers and the neighborhood—a great improvement from days when serious but unhired workers were stuck on the street all day and sometimes wrongfully mistaken for delinquents.

Ray was also familiar with organizations like the D.C. Employment Justice Center that provide a combination of free legal assistance, advocacy, and education to low-income workers. Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Cleveland and many other cities have such centers, and Ray realized Kansas City was the largest metropolitan area without one.

The area has a demonstrated need. In a 2006 survey of Latino immigrants in the Kansas City metro area by El Centro, Inc., 15% of respondents who had worked in the U.S. said that they had, at some point, not been paid for their work. Thirty-six percent of respondents were not paid overtime in excess of 40 hours; of construction workers, 42% received no overtime.

Latino immigrants are far from the only low-income workers who suffer injustice.

“African Americans are more discriminated against than any other group,” says Ray.

No-pay is not as much of an issue for most, he says, but they are targeted by temporary agencies. Many African Americans, including ones from Kansas City, were recruited by companies to do reconstruction work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and had outrageously excessive fees deducted from their pay.
Nationally, African Americans are more affected by economic downturns than other groups.

As in other places, low-income workers in Kansas City were left hanging in a gap that no other entity was filling. Legal services and legal aid organizations weren’t doing the work, in part because the Legal Services Corporation that provides them federal funding prohibits their representation of undocumented clients.

“Some lawyers were taking [wage and other] cases, but they got overwhelmed,” says Ray. Even members of minority bar associations were not aware of the extent of the problems of low-income workers.

To fill the void, KCWJC has continued its monthly clinics. In 2006, clinic volunteers helped more than 100 workers collect about $6,000 in unpaid wages.

Importantly to KCWJC’s philosophy, they did it with the workers by their side. Workers can’t simply hand the case over to volunteer attorneys; rather, they are required to return to clinics to see their complaint through and to be involved in filling out paperwork and drafting letters to employers.

Even more importantly, KCWJC is clear that legal assistance is neither an exclusive nor sufficient remedy to workers’ problems.

“We try to push self-help,” explains Ray. “It’s easy for people to think that an attorney can solve all their problems. But law is such a single-remedy thing, because you can win a case for one person, but sometimes you can’t disclose the details of it, so you can’t help anyone else. We don’t want workers to get into the routine of thinking that an attorney can solve all their problems. If workers don’t learn how they can help themselves, it won’t help that we get them their money, because they’ll just be back in here two months later with the same problem.”

As in any kind of abuse, information and education is essential to stopping the cycle. To that end, KCWJC maintains a list of “dishonest employers” who have been accused of refusing to pay workers, misclassifying them as independent contractors, or committing other employment violations. The list is distributed to community service organizations and workers, including the ones who gather at the CAN Center. The most recent list, issued in April 2007, lists 91 dishonest employers, including 8 “repeat offenders” with more than one complaint made against them. The list should be of interest to those who hire the services of the employers, too, since violators of employment law often break consumer law, too.

Alberto, quoted in the Fox 4 News story about his labor problem, said, “I am going to be careful now. I look at that sheet now to see what companies or people don’t pay.”

Workers can do other things to protect themselves, such as finding out the name of the person and company they are really working for and their work location, writing down the license plates number of the person who picks them up, keeping track of their hours on their own, and keeping any employment handbook or other written material they are given.

***

A founding document of KCWJC, however, envisions a more profound way of informing workers of their rights.

“In our eyes,” it reads, “the justice center will be a success if, after we are long gone, it continues to exist through the workers.”

Invoking the Mayan philosophy of “delayed gratification,” the praxis (see, think, act) central to liberation theology, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of planting the seeds of social change – even if you don’t live to see them grow – the document describes Dignity Education. To date, the KCWJC has facilitated only one eight-week course of Dignity Education for approximately five workers, but plans to make the curriculum an essential and even required complement to the legal assistance workers receive. The course includes “know your rights” workshops regarding immigrant status and employment, United States labor history, a primer on the dynamics of immigration, and three sessions on organizing skills, such as public speaking, analyzing and solving problems, and leading a meeting.

There is ready recognition among KCWJC board members and volunteers that, even as legal assistance for workers improves, education and organizing the essential tools of change.

“I can’t wait until we start educating people,” says Heber Gonzalez. Before becoming at attorney, he worked side by side with construction workers. “We have to teach people about their lien rights as independent contractors. Lien rights can be a huge leverage for them. It’s exciting to think about.”

***

Ray Rojas has never been a typical law graduate. He is a student of Chicano literature, community organizing, and social movements, as likely to quote Brazilian education theorist Paulo Freire as he is state statutes. He takes a multidisciplinary approach to worker justice. For instance, on a November morning last fall, he led a small march of community activists around the cul-de-sac residence of Olathe Jerry Williams, a contractor notorious for manipulating, threatening, and withholding pay from workers. KCWJC filed complaints on behalf of workers with the U.S. Department of Labor, the Kansas Department of Labor, and the Johnson County District Attorney. But as a bonus, Ray prepared chants for the picketers: “Jerry Williams, you have to pay. Pay your workers every day.”

In Lawrence and Kansas City, Ray became known for wearing guayaberas and straw fedora hats, a symbolic reminder of his roots. Now he has returned to those roots. Ray and wife Noemi moved back to their hometown of El Paso at the end of May. The birth of baby daughter Brisa in December had much to do with the difficult decision.

“We really missed our families,” says Ray.

Although he stepped down as chair of the KCWJC board, he continues as a member—and, for the short-term, at least, his cell phone number is still the lifeline of workers and advocates across Kansas. Muneer Abad now leads the group and looks forward to its future.

“I want to expand our reach—get folks from all over the metro coming to clinics. I want us to have the ability to represent workers at hearings, with volunteer or even staff attorneys,” Muneer says.

Indeed, KCWJC now has clients at a more advanced stage in the Kansas wage claims process than ever before. More volunteer lawyers will be needed as workers enter the hearing phase of administrative processes. There was a large turnout at May’s clinic, and numbers are expected to be high throughout the summer, when many temporary, outdoor jobs are available.

“When we have enough volunteers and volunteer lawyers, I’d like for us to open a second clinic in Jackson County,” says Ray.

He would also like to resume the organizing he began doing with day laborers at the Westside CAN Center. Meeting weekly for a period, Ray and the workers wrote rules for using the center and discussed what standards they wanted to employ for employers who come to hire people.

KCWJC might help workers form a contractors association, too, says Ray. Some workers who start their own contracting businesses don’t get paid by their clients, and can’t pay their employees.

The group hopes to have 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status soon and to solicit funding from local donors and grant makers. Eventually they plan to have a physical space, office equipment, and enough resources to hire a few staff.

KCWJC is a member organization of the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates coalition, which formed in fall 2006 to counter the many anti-immigrant measures proposed by the state legislature. The Worker Justice Center also intends to work to strengthen local and state laws that affect low-income workers.

If the KCWJC has its way, workers will gain the knowledge to organize themselves and, someday, create social change.

“We may not see [this] social change,” Ray wrote at the founding of the organization. “But we can envision a future and work for it in the present.”

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