Center for Labor and Research fights wage theft, brings justice to student workers

Danniel Rodriguez/Staff Writer

Students may want to look more closely at their next paychecks because they may not be receiving what they’re owed. Wage theft has been making waves in Miami-Dade County and the University’s Center for Labor and Research is at the forefront in the battle against it.

Cynthia Hernandez, a senior research associate at the Center for Labor and Research, always asks her students if they have been victims of wage theft. She said at least a dozen students raise their hands in each class.

“With the high unemployment rate, many students who graduate are not able to find jobs in their field and take jobs in the low wage service sector,” Hernandez said.

Wage theft is when a worker is legally owed money, but their employer refuses to pay wages, underpays them, violates tips, commits unauthorised deductions or misclassifies employees.

Hernandez said the labor center began research in 2006 in the agriculture industry where wage theft was not reported. However, more research revealed wage theft in industries where even more students are typically employed.

Bryan Angarita, a senior anthropology major who interns with the Center for Labor and Research and is now directing a documentary on wage theft, said that when he was 15-year-old and working for a silk screening warehouse in Doral, he experienced wage theft.

“I worked with about 30 other low income employees, most of them undocumented. We were paid below the minimum wage and sometimes not at all,” Angarita said.

According to a report by the Research Institute for Social and Economic Policy and the Center for Labor and Research, the industries mostly affected by wage theft are retail, hospitality, restaurants, agriculture and construction.

“Student can be severely affected since many students often work in retail, hospitality, and  restaurant businesses,” said Angarita.

The same report by the Labor Center states that Miami-Dade County has the largest documented wage theft cases in the state with approximately 7,000 cases and $2 million in unclaimed wages.

With help from the Labor Center and the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, in 2010 Miami-Dade Commissioners passed the first county-wide wage theft ordinance. Since it’s inception, it has recovered over $500,000 in unpaid wages.

Hernandez said that other counties have used the research accomplished by the University’s Labor Center to help pass their own ordinances to combat wage theft on state wide level.

As for what’s next for the Labor Center, they hope to continue fighting this issue.

“We hope to create stronger mechanisms for workers to collect their wages once they have gone through the preliminary hearings,” said Hernandez “It’s really about bringing awareness to workers about their rights and what they can do if they’re confronted with wage theft.”


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