Campaign aims to enforce fair labor practices with public pressure

Angel Lopez, left, and Zoila Perez both say they’ve experienced their share of labor violations as low-wage workers, but as business owners, want to treat their own employees fairly.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Angel Lopez, left, and Zoila Perez both say they’ve experienced their share of labor violations as low-wage workers, but as business owners, want to treat their own employees fairly.

When Angel Lopez opened his restaurant in Chicago’s East Side community earlier this year, he knew what kind of boss he didn’t want to be.

For nearly 19 years, Lopez toiled at a local liquor store where he clocked upward of 75 hours a week, but rarely got paid overtime. Even working at a couple of restaurants in South Shore and downtown Lopez saw employers shortchanging Latino immigrant workers on their wages.

“I think they take advantage of Latino workers because many don’t have papers and they won’t speak up,” said Lopez who immigrated to Chicago from Mexico in 1984.

When Lopez hung the help wanted sign on the door of El Sabor de Guerrero restaurant, 3614 E. 106th St., he knew he wanted to treat his workers fairly and pay them a decent wage.

So when Centro de Trabajadores Unidos: Immigrant Workers’ Project rolled out its campaign to hold local businesses accountable for treating workers fairly, Lopez quickly signed up. He was among eight businesses to sign the Community Alliance for Respect and Empowerment (C.A.R.E.) community agreement. The effort seeks to reduce wage theft among low-wage workers, which studies show is prevalent in Cook County.

The campaign, which targets businesses in the South Chicago, East Side, Hegewisch and South Deering neighborhoods, is part of a larger national movement to find innovative ways to hold employers of immigrant workers accountable for their treatment.

“When you treat employees well they are more productive. When employees are treated badly they sometimes take revenge [on the business],” said Lopez, who wants to set an example for other employers.

C.A.R.E. is a public awareness campaign to educate residents about fair labor practices while acknowledging businesses that are doing the right thing, paying the city’s new minimum wage of $10.50 and providing lunch breaks, said Mary Claire Schmit, an organizer with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos.

“Some people call it a code of conduct with employers, but we are calling it a community agreement to highlight the fact that this is not just our organization asking for this. This is an agreement employers are making with community members and stakeholders,” Schmit said.

The agreement calls for employers to follow wage requirements, to develop a paid sick leave policy, to provide lunch breaks, to establish an employee grievance process and to agree to annual trainings by Centro on worker rights and labor laws.

Companies that comply with the campaign receive a round green and yellow C.A.R.E. placard to display in storefront windows. The aim is to encourage residents to only patronize businesses displaying the placard, thereby putting community pressure on other businesses to follow labor laws.

In total, 15 businesses, organizations and churches have signed the agreement.

A 2014 Centro study in the South Chicago neighborhood found that two out of five immigrant workers in the 10th Ward experienced some form of wage theft from local businesses, many of which are immigrant-owned. The study found that women were more likely to experience wage theft than men – 46 percent compared to 31 percent, respectively. It also found that wage theft occurred more often in the service industry and was highest among those paid in cash.

Centro’s campaign represents a shift in labor organizing in which worker rights centers use “community power” to pressure businesses to adhere to fair labor practices, said Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for employment rights of low-wage workers.

Similar campaigns include the pact signed between Florida tomato pickers and Taco Bell and other fast food chains. The farm workers called for a national boycott of Taco Bell until its parent company, Yum Brands, improved wages and working conditions.

Many employers, Ruckelshaus noted, acquiesce after they have been beaten up in the media.

Centro modeled its campaign after a similar effort by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United or ROCUnited to secure better working conditions for immigrant restaurant workers in New York.

To encourage residents to patronize businesses that treat workers fairly, companies who sign the Community Alliance for Respect and Empowerment (C.A.R.E.) agreement receive a placard to display in storefront windows.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

To encourage residents to patronize businesses that treat workers fairly, companies who sign the Community Alliance for Respect and Empowerment (C.A.R.E.) agreement receive a placard to display in storefront windows.

“It is sort of the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for labor standards,” Ruckelshaus said. “I think this group and others realize it is really hard to stop wage theft, especially if it is smaller businesses where departments of labor aren’t going to go after them and the workers might be scared to come forward either because they are immigrants or don’t want to lose their jobs. Any public pressure that can be brought on these businesses is positive and may actually work.”

Centro’s campaign goes a step further. The organization acts as a resource for business owners and their employees if either have labor issues. It offers labor rights training on overtime and minimum wage laws, workplace safety law and information on tip worker wages. The majority of complaints received by Centro involve overtime and tips.

The organization vets employers signing the agreement to ensure there are no current employment issues and creates benchmarks and standards that the business are required to follow.

“We really wanted to be intentional about working with the businesses we do have right now to make sure they are following all the laws and there are no issues with their workers,” Schmit said.

While the center works with diverse businesses, Schmit noted the majority of wage theft complaints come from Latinos working for businesses owned by Latino immigrants. But that may be because of the population the center serves, she added.

“I don’t think it is right to mistreat workers,” said Zoila Perez, who like Lopez, vowed to treat her employees fairly. The waitress turned restaurateur also experienced her fair share of labor violations. She said she once worked 60 to 70 hours a week with no vacations or employee benefits at a local restaurant.

When she and her husband, Teodora Orozco, along with another business partner, decided to re-open Roma’s, 9247 S. Commercial Ave., worker exploitation was not on the menu. She wanted her workers to see each other as equals.

“I always tell my employees, ‘When we’re here, we’re all waitresses,’” Perez said. “There is no difference between us. I am not any better than them even though I am the one paying them. We are the same. I have to work to make a living and depend on the tips too.”

The prevalence of wage theft cost low-wage workers millions of dollars each year and further exacerbates income inequality, experts say. But that number can be much higher since fear of employer retaliation silences victims.

In Chicago and suburban Cook County, low-wage workers lose more than $7.3 million per week from wage theft and other labor law violations, according to a 2010 University of Illinois’ Center for Urban Economic Development study. That affects local economies by undercutting tax revenues and forcing other businesses into unfair labor practices to stay competitive, the study found.

Wage theft has a multiplier effect, especially for small communities like South Chicago, says Nik Theodore, co-author of the Center for Urban Economic Development study.

“It robs not just those families of the money that they are owed from their work, but it also robs the whole community of the spending that would have occurred within that neighborhood,” said Theodore, a UIC professor of urban planning and policy. Theodore worked on Centro’s 2014 study.

Because retail has low profit margins owners look to cut corners to stay competitive – often at employees’ expense, he added.

“Wage theft in an economy like this can spread like a virus because all those businesses are facing the same competitive conditions of low margins,” Theodore said, noting that the situation in South Chicago highlights a citywide issue.

Salon owner Estela Nava joined the C.A.R.E. campaign to help her clients. Although she had not experienced wage theft, many of her customers have. She wanted to arm herself with information to help others.

“I tell them the things that they should and shouldn’t do so they can stand up for themselves,” said Nava, owner of Estela’s Hair Care Studio in the East Side neighborhood. “They shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for themselves.”

The program, she added, educates business owners on discrimination, worker rights when hurt or sick on the job, unions and what to do if a worker uses a Social Security number that is not hers.

“It helps business owners make sure we don’t abuse our employers,” said Nava, who’s been a hairstylist for 30 years. “A lot of business owners, and also employees, don’t know what our rights are. Knowing them will help out the community.”