The War of Wages

A State Labor Department bureaucrat fought hard in his own job dispute. How did he do on behalf of others?

In winning a $350,000 settlement against his former employers at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Carlos Renteria got his job back at the Labor Standards Unit (LSU), received a promotion and raise--and nearly caused the unit to shut down.

Some of Renteria's critics are practically choking on the irony: The Labor Standards Unit is supposed to help Colorado workers resolve wage disputes with their employers but often is ineffectual, while its boss wins a big case against his employer.

Renteria's own labor dispute began when he claimed in 1988 that he was illegally demoted from his LSU job, setting off more than half a decade of litigation that finally ended last May. Renteria's large settlement was more than half the LSU's yearly budget, and the Department of Labor was at one point faced with closing the LSU for part of last year to scrape together enough money to pay him off.

Not that the LSU's closing would have had that much impact. The division's duties include conducting hearings on employers who refuse to pay their employees and ensuring that wages owed employees are paid immediately--powers Renteria himself helped draft in a 1986 bill. And many Coloradans have tried to avail themselves of the LSU's services: The division's own statistics show 8,129 requests for help from July 1994 to June 1995. But only seventeen hearings were conducted between 1986 and 1992--and none have taken place since 1993. "We discovered that we were not getting anywhere," Renteria says. "We're holding hearings, the employees are not getting paid, and it's costing a lot of money." Each of those hearings, he adds, cost between $1,500 and $2,000.

LSU staffers say just under half of the complaints they field are simply misunderstandings that are easily resolved by a letter or phone call to the employer. About 12 percent of the claims are deemed invalid, and in the rest of the cases, the complainants are told the LSU can't do anything further for them. Those people are told that they always have the option of pursuing court action against their employers. But many of those who go to the LSU are poor and poorly educated--they have neither the money nor the savvy to fight the system. Renteria, meanwhile, was able to successfully negotiate his way through the State Personnel Board's maze of hearings and proceedings and come up a winner.

His lawyer, Eva Camacho Woodard, says it is "very dangerous" to draw any comparison between Renteria's own case and those of the claimants he serves. "It's hard to see the similarity between wage-and-hour cases and Mr. Renteria's," Woodard says. Using a medical analogy, Woodard says Renteria's "ordeal" was like losing a child, while the people who come to the LSU have relatively minor problems, like cutting a finger.

"After five and a half years and beaucoup money for litigation," she says, "he walked a very difficult path." (Renteria's legal fees up to September 1992, according to documents, totaled more than $18,000.)

Not everyone sees Renteria as a martyr, however. Labor attorney Bill Rapson says someone like Renteria might have an advantage that his "customers" do not. "Oftentimes, government bureaucrats are 'in bed' with business," he says. "They see each other every day; they're articulate and understand the business environment." Many employees, especially lower-income workers, he says, "can't talk the same talk."

Rapson has done wage-claim cases before, he says, but he's "never bothered" with the LSU because "I've been told it's a waste of time--they're a bunch of dead-asses."

Even Renteria himself acknowledges that the wage-claim process his division oversees gives employers "the upper hand."

"If the employer has definitely violated the statute," Renteria says, "and refuses to pay, yes, [the employer] would have the upper hand, because the employee would have to pursue them. However, if the employee pursues it and succeeds in court, then the remedy is that the employer has to pay a penalty and attorney fees."

The LSU has no legal authority itself to pursue employers, Renteria says, and little funds to hold hearings or hire new investigators.

All of which is exasperating to people like Moe Zenati, a computer programmer who came to the LSU seeking help last year in a wage dispute with his employer. The LSU pleads poverty, Zenati says, while its boss collected a big settlement. "If you didn't have any money, where is the $350,000 coming from?" asks Zenati.

In fact, the Labor Department said it couldn't afford to pay Renteria and requested a supplemental appropriation from the legislature in March 1995. Most appropriations like that are passed perfunctorily, but the Joint Budget Committee initially voted 5-0 to reject this one.

"I was particularly disturbed, because this involved the department that handles claims against fair labor standards, and they're involved in a discrimination case in their own department," says JBC chairman Gil Romero, a House Democrat from Pueblo. "I thought it was more than ironic. There appeared to be this internal inconsistency."

But Romero and JBC colleagues were told by Labor officials that the LSU would shut down if the legislature didn't foot the bill for the Renteria settlement. George Delaney, head of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, confirms that it probably would have been closed for three months, and the state Labor Department's executive director, John Donlon, says some of the state's forty job-service centers would have shut down indefinitely.

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