DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Wage theft costs Americans more than any other type of theft. According to the Economic Policy Center, $50 billion a year in wages are stolen from workers.
In Texas, thousands of employees every year file a claim with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) with hopes of recovering the money they're owed. However, recouping stolen wages is often difficult and rare, a CBS News investigation found.
Oscar Torres, a construction worker in Dallas, filed a wage theft claim with TWC after his employer, a small remodeling company, did not pay him for 10 days of work in 2018 – totaling $1,400.
"What happen is the subcontractor just disappeared," Torres said. "I've fallen behind on rent. I've had to cut back on food expenses and gas to be able to go to another job" [translation from Spanish].
For low-wage construction workers in Texas, Torres' experience is common. According to a survey conducted by the University of Texas and the Workers Defense Project, 1 in 5 construction workers reported being denied payment for their work.
When the TWC investigated Torres' case, Torres received a judgement for the money he was owed, however, he has yet to receive any of his owed wages as the state has, so far, been unable to collect the money from his former employer.
In the past four years, the TWC awarded Torres unpaid wages four time by four different employers. In each case, Torres has not been paid.
Torres said, "I believe in justice and justice here in Texas and that's why I keep filing cases because I believe, at some point, I will be able to recover my stolen wages" [translation from Spanish].
A CBS News Investigation found thousands of Texas workers every year end up, like Torres, empty handed after submitting a wage theft claim with the state.
Ed Serna, the Executive Director of the TWC, said given the tools his agency has to work with he believes the state's wage theft claim process, overall, is working. TWC has 37 people on staff to dedicated to investigating wage theft claims.
"Everything we do we think about the individual," he said. "Our concentration is to try and help Texans – Texans who are individuals or Texans who are businesses.
According to data analyzed by CBS News, since 2010, nearly 150,000 wage theft claims have been filed in Texas. State investigators dismissed more half of those – citing lack of jurisdiction, lack of evidence, false claims, or workers withdrawing claims. This leaves 62,000 claims where state investigators determined workers were indeed owed wages, but not all of those workers were paid. According to state data, 37,000 claims since 2010 have resulted in the TWC directly recouping money for workers.
Sean Goldhammer, an attorney for the Workers Defense Project, said for Texas workers the state's claims process can often feel long and defeating.
"You maybe a year out and you have nothing to show from engaging," he explained.
Goldhammer, whose organization helps construction workers navigate the state's claims process, said one of the biggest problems he sees with the Texas system is the lack of consequences for employers who don't pay.
"We've heard from workers who've reported that their employer laughed at them when they told them they have rights," he said. "They (employers) seem very comfortable with the system, knowing there are ways to get around paying their workers."
Texas employers who owe more than $2,000 in wages are put on a list posted on the TWC website. There are currently more than 10,000 names on this list. The TWC also puts administrative liens on these companies along with warrant holds - preventing the company from doing business with the state or receiving money owed from a state agency.
Filing criminal charges against employers can be an option, but Serna said it's rare. When his agency has referred cases, he said most of the time local district attorneys have declined to prosecute often because of the relatively small dollar amounts.
The TWC said, on average, it takes about two months for its investigators to make a determination in a case. However, between appeals and collection, it can take several additional months before workers recoup lost wages, according to data analyzed by CBS News.
For information on how to submit a wage theft claim under the Texas Payday law, click here.
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