By Seth Daniel
It was an historic occasion on Monday night when the Chelsea City Council voted unanimously to enact a Wage Theft Ordinance – the first Council in the state to do so.
The City’s wage theft ordinance, brought to the floor by nine councillors earlier this month, would seek to make a statement about the prevalence of wage theft from employees, but in particular from vulnerable immigrant communities in the city. Practically speaking, the ordinance states that no contractor (or any subcontractor) or vendor hired by the City can have a federal or state criminal or civil judgment, administrative citation, final administrative determination, order or debarment resulting from a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act or any other federal or state laws regulating the payment of wages within three year prior to the date of any contract with the City. It also calls for any violation of the above laws during a contract period be reported to the City within five days.
It also includes a provision that allows the License Commission to deny any permit or license if violations of the law have been made within three years of any application. If any violation of the above law occurs during a licensed period, the Commission can also take action on a license for the violations.
Wage theft is defined roughly as not paying minimum wage, not paying overtime, withholding pay and sometimes not paying at all.
After the unanimous vote, the crowded Council chambers erupted in the chant, “Si se puede, si se puede!”
“I think this is more than a statement; it’s the right thing to do,” said Councillor Judith Garcia. “I support this because I can’t help but think of my mother. She is a factory worker in Chelsea and has been for 26 years. I know as the daughter of a single-mother who raised me on minimum wage that it is so important to get that wage. When we deprive people of their wage, we destabilize them and their families. I support this in the name of my mother and all the other workers that are the fabric of our nation.”
Councillor Roy Avellaneda said this is a great opportunity to make a tremendous difference.
“We will be the first City Council to pass this in the state,” he said. “Rarely do we get the opportunity to make such a difference and such an impact. I am telling you from experience we will rarely get a chance to make this much difference and this much of a statement…We are on the front lines of this problem.”
Labor leader Tony Hernandez, also a Chelsea resident, said stealing from workers is a huge problem in Chelsea.
“This will make a statement that the City of Chelsea is open for business as long as you want to do business right,” he said. “The most abused are immigrant workers who don’t speak the language. They hire one guy who speaks English and they pay him well and he is the leader of all the other guys. The other guys who don’t speak the language are abused.”
Maria Aguillar of Cottage Street told the Council that her husband has had his wages stolen, and often their family suffers from not being able to buy food or pay rent.
“We experience what it means every day to have our wages stolen,” she said. “My husband was working for a company and was not paid for two weeks. We had a very, very tough situation. We were behind on rent and behind on bills. That’s why I ask you to pass this because wage theft doesn’t just affect us as parents, but all of our families.”
Rich Rogers of the Greater Boston Labor Council said his organization is very pleased that Chelsea was taking this step.
“Wage theft is an epidemic in our nation,” he said. “Chelsea with its huge population of immigrant workers with limited English proficiency is particularly vulnerable…We’re very pleased Chelsea is jumping into the forefront of preventing wage theft.”
Chelsea Collaborative Gladys Vega said passing the ordinance is a major victory for Chelsea. She related the 2013 action by the Collaborative and the state Attorney General where $1 million was recovered from workers who had their wages stolen by Boston Hides & Furs in Chelsea. Some of those workers were paid $300 for more than 60 hours of work, if paid at all, according to the settlement from 2013.
That was just one case, she said, and one of the few that was caught.
“When the City puts a bid out, people will know Chelsea is not a place to bid if you have dirty laundry,” she said.