By Seth Daniel
The Chelsea Collaborative joined with two other human service agencies this month to begin several “actions” to put employers engaging in wage theft on notice that they will not let it go – even if employers manipulate a so-called loophole in the City’s pioneering Wage Theft Ordinance.
On Nov. 30, about 20 activists and one man who said he was owed nearly $3,000 in unpaid wages from a flooring company, marched up Shawmut Street to the home address of the owner – who has registered the construction business from his home.
“This is something we are doing to let employers know we will not stand by and watch the struggle of workers due to non-payment of wages,” said Yessenia Alfaro-Alvarez, of the Collaborative, while standing on the stoop of the purported wage violator. “At this time, we want to send a message and that’s why we’ve come out here. This is one of the parts of the law where we believe there is a loophole. That is with businesses that register from their homes. It’s very hard to track them.”
Jose Becerra was one of three workers owned money from the construction company. In total, all three are suspected to be owned $9,000 from the Chelsea company.
He was there with about 19 other activists who were prepared to deliver a letter directly to the owner of the company. The owner didn’t answer the door, and activists yelled up to he and his wife to no avail.
“Right now, it’s the loophole that is the problem,” said Sylvia Ramirez of the Collaborative. “Businesses don’t register. They are not in compliance, but the City isn’t aware of them. They have to find a way to investigate and cure this condition.”
The action is part of an overall effort to fight for workers rights, which was bolstered this week on Tuesday when the Collaborative launched its new ‘Journaleros’ project at its existing Workers Center. That Center has been around for 15 years, but now graduates from the Center are looking to empower other workers – primarily day laborers on the fringes who frequently have wages stolen.
Those workers are often recognized by the fact that they wait on certain corners in Chelsea, where construction companies will drive by and pick them up to work for the day.
Many of those corners are in the Shawmut Street and Central Avenue areas, while another major place is at the Home Depot in the Parkway Plaza.
“The project consists in organizing workers in the corners,” read a release from the Collaborative. “This project will allow us to educate these workers to prevent wage theft. The workers will acquire the right tools to defend and protect their rights as day labor workers.”
The project kick-off included canvassing many local businesses and also going to the major “corners” where workers are picked up.
As for the loophole, City Manager Tom Ambrosino said he isn’t clear about what the City could do. He said the City is only able to penalize someone for wage theft by not giving them a City contract or not giving them a municipally-required license.
He said the only fix would be to deny business certificates to those violating the Wage Ordinance. However, he said what would likely happen is small companies operating out of homes would simply not get a certificate, which is required only every four years.
“I suppose we could add a section that says the City Clerk can’t issue a Business Certificate…if a company has similar wage violations,” he said. “But, honestly, that statute is impossible to enforce, and we generally rely upon the goodwill of folks to come in and register. It is not as though this municipality or any municipality has a way of keeping track of every business operating from a home address.”
He said if there are licenses, such as liquor licenses, issued by the License Commission, they could have a better handle on it, but for private companies not needing such a license, it would be difficult.
“What is likely to happen if we added such a provision to our Wage Theft Ordinance is that someone who couldn’t secure a Business Certificate from the City Clerk because of Wage Violations would simply avoid getting one,” he said.