Testimony of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Before Council of the District of Columbia
Committee of the Whole
Subcommittee on Workforce
Concerning B21-120: Wage Theft Prevention Clarification and Overtime Fairness Amendment Act of 2015 & B21-711: Wage Theft Prevention Revision Amendment Act of 2016
Chairwoman Silverman and members of the D.C. Council. My name is Dennis Corkery. I am a Senior Staff Attorney at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and a Ward 1 resident.
For over a quarter of a century, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee has helped hundreds of workers across the region secure wages that their employers have unlawfully withheld from them, including 26 workers who recently recovered $600,000 in back wages and damages from a D.C. based contractor who refused to pay overtime.
As someone who litigates in multiple jurisdictions to fight wage theft, I am proud to say that the District of Columbia is the leader in the protections that it provides for its workers. From treble damages and reinstatement for all claims to prime contractor liability, D.C.’s wage theft laws provide a national model for wage theft advocates. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is grateful for the Council’s commitment to preserving these protections for our clients.
Stronger wage theft laws are still desperately needed. Nearly ninety people reach out to the Lawyers’ Committee per month to seek help with various violations of their civil rights. What makes those who contact us about wage theft unique, however, is that with only a few exceptions, individuals who report that they have not been paid properly – whether because they have not been paid the minimum wage, have not received an overtime premium, or just flat out have not been paid – turn out to have viable causes of action.
Wage theft continues to be a significant problem for D.C. workers. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a majority of families that live in poverty are supported by a full time worker. Therefore it is not just work that brings people out of poverty, but work for a fair standard of living. That is why D.C.’s wage theft laws are so vital to the workers that the Washington Lawyers’ Committee assists in enforcing their rights
Many of our clients represent a segment of vulnerable D.C. residents who frequently face exploitative working conditions and intimidation at the hands of their employers. For example, one of our clients worked sixty hours a week at a restaurant in Georgetown. He was paid only a few hundred dollars a week, less than D.C.’s minimum wage even when it was $8.25 an hour. His employer threatened to call the police if our client or his fellow co-workers ever complained about their pay. He added that for any undocumented employees, the employer also threatened deportation. Our client needed the job so he continued to work. Because of D.C.’s strong laws, however, he was able to recover several thousand dollars in back wages shortly after he filed suit.
This story paints a picture of the reality many of our clients face, often living in the shadows of society and working upwards of 70 hours a week to cover the basic costs of food and housing for themselves and their families. Their wages and the damages incurred frequently only amount to a few thousand dollars when a case comes to an end. But for families who are living paycheck to paycheck in a city where housing costs are untenable, every dollar is necessary for survival.
That is why it is vital for our clients to be able to recover their missing wages and recover them expeditiously. It is a testament to their courage that they call out their employers for breaking the law, and D.C. must continue to do whatever it can to make sure that their path to justice is an easy one.
Although our clients understand that they have been cheated by their employers, they often do not understand precisely how the law works or what steps are necessary to vindicate their rights.
That is why attorneys are essential to assisting victims of wage theft and why the fee-shifting component of D.C.’s wage theft bill is so important.
As I have just described, most wage theft claimants cannot afford to hire an attorney, and they will often only recover a few thousand dollars. Traditional contingent fee agreements, where an attorney takes a portion of a client’s award, would not be economically feasible for an attorney in these cases. Furthermore, such arrangements would likely dissuade clients from coming forward and holding their employers accountable, as it would reduce what they could recover. Awarding attorneys’ fees to a prevailing client helps to solve this problem, and we are grateful that this provision is a part of, and will continue to be a part of, D.C. law. Fee-shifting is an essential part of civil rights statutes because it makes a private cause action possible for any plaintiff no matter the plaintiff’s wealth or the economic size of her damages.
Therefore, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee is concerned about Mayor Bowser’s proposal to eliminate a provision in the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law that calls for updated Salazar rates. These rates have continually been upheld as accurately reflecting the cost of legal services in the District of Columbia. The prices of commercial real estate, law school, and technology have made the cost of being a lawyer in D.C. skyrocket at rates faster than inflation. The Salazar rates better reflect these costs and would more fairly cover the expense of litigating lawsuits to enforce the wage and hour rights of workers. If more attorneys can be assured that it is economically feasible to assist victims of wage theft, then more attorneys will make themselves available to provide that assistance.
Further, by eliminating the mandated use of the Salazar matrix, the statue will default to the use of the ambiguous term “reasonable rate.” What is a reasonable rate? That is a question that will now need to be fought over and litigated in each and every case – creating a delay for employees in securing the money that they are owed.
Finally, the higher Salazar rates serve as a monetary deterrent for employers just as the treble damages provisions do. A greater potential exposure in terms of attorneys’ fees creates an incentive for businesses in the District to proactively follow the law and to quickly resolve cases when they have broken it.
Wage Theft is still a disappointing and shocking reality in the District of Columbia. We need to remain leaders to make it a thing of the past.