Campaign Targets 'Wage Theft'
Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard
"Wage theft" will be the topic of a Eugene talk tonight by Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, the Oregon Farmworkers' Union.
Worker justice organizations use that term to describe the illegal practice of refusing to pay workers all or part of the wages due them.
And it's a significant problem in Oregon - particularly for the state's lowest-paid workers - according to sponsors of the free event at Temple Beth Israel.
It occurs each time employers pay less than the minimum wage, don't pay overtime, steal tips, require employees to work "off the clock" or fail to pay at all, according to the Campaign to Stop Wage Theft, a growing coalition of worker organizations, faith communities and social justice agencies.
One such agency, the Oregon Center for Public Policy, analyzed wage claim data from Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries and found more than 8,500 wage claims totaling more than $24 million between mid-2006 and mid-2012.
But Ramirez and others say that represents only a portion of the state's shortchanged workers.
He pointed to a PCUN study of Marion County farmworkers' wages during the 2009 berry season.
"Ninety percent of the workers reported receiving less than minimum wage for picking strawberries and cranberries," said Ramirez, who was inspired to organize farmworkers after hearing Cesar Chavez speak at his high school in California.
"Lots of people are not reporting it," he said of the under payments. And the problem goes far beyond agricultural work, he added.
"It's gotten so bad that PCUN has begun servicing people outside of farm work," he said. The problem seems to be particularly common in construction jobs such as roofing, painting and drywalling, he said.
Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who oversees BOLI, agreed that reported cases represent only a portion of the nonpayment problem.
"Jobs are so scarce these days, people are doing everything they can not to rock the boat," he said in a recent interview.
Though state law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for filing wage and hour complaints, many workers remain intimidated. A Eugene concrete worker who recovered more than $3,600 in unpaid wages through BOLI refused to discuss the case with a reporter, saying he feared the publicity would make it harder for him to find future work.
Meanwhile, a state revenue shortfall forced BOLI to cut its investigative staff in July, meaning the agency will limit its investigations to allegations that employers violated minimum wage, overtime or child labor laws. …