State Legislature

Wage-theft bill advances

Bill provides government avenue for workers' pay claims

Posted

A bill that would create a governmental process that deals with workers' claims of wage theft cleared its first legislative hurdle on Jan. 22, a year after similar legislation failed.

The issue can affect those who work in contract labor positions and industry service employees, such as restaurant wait staff, according to testimony heard in Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Wage Protection Act aims to protect those workers who feel they are being shortchanged in wages. Under the bill, workers can file claims of missed wages through the Department of Labor.

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, told the Senate Judiciary Committee the bill gives workers more resources by which they are able to claim unpaid wages.

"When folks work a long hard day and expect to be paid, they should be paid," Ulibarri said.

Ulibarri told the committee the Department of Labor receives thousands of calls from workers each year who claim their employers owe them money.

"The resolution most people get is to call an attorney, go through small claims court, or figure it out on your own," he said. "Most folks are intimidated by that process."

Under the bill, the new administrative process calls for the Department of Labor to investigate wage claim thefts of up to $7,500. If the department determines that a wage violation has occurred, the employer has 14 days to respond to the decision, or else face fines.

The bill also allows for an appeal process for employers who are deemed to be in violation through the administrative process.

Last year's version of the bill included criminal penalties on employers who were found to have been involved in wage violations. Businesses came onboard with this year's attempt after the criminalization aspect was removed from the current legislation.

The bill received mixed testimony.

Chuck Saxton of the Bennett-based Saxton Construction, a supporter of the legislation, said he has heard stories from workers who claim that other employers cheated them out of paychecks.

"Our laws are supposed to be a reflection of our morality," he said, speaking in favor of the bill.

However, the Colorado Restaurant Association has come out against the bill. Nick Hoover, a spokesman for the organization, said that most complaints that workers file regarding alleged wage theft are the result of "simple confusion over payroll procedures."

Hoover also said the proposed administrative process would lead to "punitive costs" for employers on matters that can typically be handled in-house.

"I haven't spoken to a restaurant that hasn't been able to handle this in a face-to-face conversation," Hoover said.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said the legislation is unnecessary and that the current grievance process works without government intervention.

"I do not believe that the benefit of this legislation outweighs the cost," he said.

The bill passed the Democrat-controlled committee following a 3-2 party line vote. It now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, before it receives a full vote in the Senate.