Opinion: Denver's Anti-Wage Theft Bill Is a Victory for the Working Class

Passing Resolution 22-1614 was a bright spot for Denver City Council.
Passing Resolution 22-1614 was a bright spot for Denver City Council.
Denver City Council meetings are not typically exciting affairs. But the meeting on Monday, January 9, was an exhilarating exception. After hours of testimony from local workers and their supporters, Denver City Council unanimously passed Resolution 22-1614, an anti-wage theft bill designed to help workers reclaim stolen wages and punish Denver businesses that commit wage theft violations.

Sponsored by councilmembers Candi CdeBaca, Stacie Gilmore, Amanda Sawyer and Council President Jamie Torres, Resolution 22-1614 is a product four years in the making. Supported by many local unions and labor groups (including the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, of which the author is a part), the bill garnered large degrees of grassroots support, helping it achieve its unanimous passage.

“This ordinance reflects our local commitment to doing everything possible to guarantee workers get paid and stopping wage theft altogether with meaningful penalties,” said Councilwoman CdeBaca in a public statement released after its passage. “We value our workers in this city and hope to prevent and remedy harm done to the hardworking people in our communities."

The Problem
Simply defined, wage theft is any time a worker is paid less than what they are legally owed. This is most commonly minimum-wage violations, though unpaid overtime, off-the-clock work requests, and forcing workers to skip breaks are frequent.

Though under-discussed, wage theft is a very common problem facing Denverites. Council’s research found up to 68 percent of low-wage, metro-area workers suffered at least one pay-related violation in the typical workweek. It is no surprise that wages are most often stolen from disadvantaged communities, predominantly immigrants, women and workers of color. Prior to the passage of this resolution, it was extremely costly in both time and money for workers to pursue stolen wages, often resulting in them just “letting it go.”

Wage theft is no minimal crime. Approximately $728 million is stolen from Colorado workers every year. At the epicenter of Colorado business, this theft greatly impacts not only the workers of Denver but the entire city. Every dollar stolen is not only a resource taken from a worker and their families, but a detriment to our community. As workers are more likely than employers (especially those not located in Denver) to spend their money locally, every dollar stolen is a dollar not spent at local restaurants, coffee shops and grocers. This is to say nothing of the tax implications, as stolen wages deprive Denver of much-needed payroll taxes that fund important social programs.

The Solution
But after years of hard work, Denver has a solution. Included in Resolution 22-1614 are commonsense provisions that will protect Denver workers from exploitation. Under the new law, the statute of limitations to file a wage theft grievance has been increased to three years. This is vitally important, as workers don’t always know when wages are stolen from them. It also expands the definition of “worker” to include independent contractors, which protects Uber, DoorDash, Lyft and other freelance employees from the exploitation of the gig economy.

And while these are important facets, the real meat and potatoes of 22-1614 is that it gives workers two avenues to pursue wages that are rightfully theirs, both of which are significant procedural improvements over the clunky and slow previous grievance methods.

The first avenue to restitution is through Denver Labor, a division of the Auditor’s Office. Resolution 22-1614 gives Denver Labor the authority to penalize businesses the total amount of wages withheld, plus an additional 12 percent. It also enables the auditor to punish especially egregious violators with flexible penalties, which can be up to three times stolen wages, job reinstatement and a $25,000 fine. There are also fines for failing to certify payroll, providing false information and retaliating against an employee.

But perhaps most important, this bill institutes “up the chain” accountability, enabling workers to reclaim their wages from whichever business in the hiring chain is available to pay. During the testimonies shared at Denver City Council, it was evident this is one of the most important facets of the bill, especially for the carpenters, construction workers and other manual laborers who were in attendance. Although the details differed, several testimonies shared a story following the same outline:

A construction company hires a contractor to complete a specific task on a construction site. The contractor then hires a carpenter, who works a full week. On Friday afternoon the carpenter asks the contractor to be paid, but is told they will be paid next week. A week later, it’s the same response. This repeats week after week after week. Eventually, the contractor who hired the worker goes out of business. Sometimes they stop answering their phone and never reappear at the site, while other times the business simply changes its name. This leaves the carpenter, who worked for several weeks, unpaid and desperate.

Under the new statute, the carpenter would be able to file a complaint with Denver Labor, which can pursue “up the chain” to the construction company that hired the out-of-business contractor. This not only ensures that the worker will be paid for the work they do, but will motivate “top of the chain” companies to vet the contractors and sub-contractors they hire.

The second avenue a worker can take is through civil action, though the bill does not support “up the chain” restitution in this manner. Still, this is a powerful asset in the arsenal of the working class, as workers are able to reclaim up to three times the total value of wages stolen, have the violating employer pay for attorney fees, reclaim an additional $100 for every day without pay, and reinstatement of employment.

The bill also has provisions to ensure that businesses aren’t being penalized for honest mistakes. As the core enforcement mechanism is the Denver Auditor’s Office, the auditor has full discretion to proceed accordingly. If they believe unpaid wages were not a product of malicious intent, they can allow the violating business to pay the wages within fourteen days of the complaint being filed and avoid fines and penalties.

The passage of Resolution 22-1614 is a victory for not only the workers of Denver, but the entire working class of Colorado. In the most populous city in the state, this bill will protect the people who make this capital city run, while sending a clear message: Colorado is a pro-labor state. Exploitation will not be tolerated.

Joe Mayall is a Denver-based writer and labor activist. You can find his work at frequently publishes commentaries and essays on matters of interest to the Denver community; the opinions in them are those of the authors, not Westword. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this piece.
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