Equal Justice Center slideshow

Equal Justice Center Slideshow

Restaurant Workers with Family
Underpaid for years, they finally recover the full back wages they earned — earnings vital to sustaining themselves and their families.

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Fair Wages Won for Austin School Construction Workers

June 2014

On June 16, the Board of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) voted to adopt improved minimum wage standards for school district construction projects, ensuring fair pay for the workers who labor on those building projects.  The vote was the result of a coalition campaign by Austin Interfaith and the Austin are building trades unions.  The Equal Justice Center, as a member of Austin Interfaith, provided vital legal support, research, and analysis for the campaign.

The improved wage rates will apply to a wave of school construction projects which AISD is preparing to carry out under a bond program approved by voters in 2013.  Like all state and federal public bodies, the AISD is required by law to pay at least the local “prevailing wage” rates on its construction projects in order to avoid undercutting the wages prevailing in the local area and to avoid getting cheap, substandard work.  The prevailing wage rates are graduated according to skill category and are based on a survey of wage levels prevailing in each local area. The basic problem before the School Board was that the AISD’s current prevailing wage rate schedule was out-of-date, having been established nearly a decade ago in 2005.

The local building trades unions and Austin Interfaith members – including the EJC – urged the board to update their prevailing wage rates using the local wage schedules determined by regular surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor under the Davis-Bacon Act.  In opposition, a number of contractors and their trade associations pressed the AISD to hire an outside vendor to do a separate wage survey, anticipating that a different survey would let them pay lower wage rates for most workers.  EJC and other organizations pointed out that the one-time separate survey would be costly, time-consuming, and likely more manipulable by employers than the well-established, standardized local Davis-Bacon surveys which the Department of Labor already conducts and updates on a regular basis.

The School Board heard public comment from building trades unions, contractors, and Austin Interfaith members – including the EJC, a spokesperson for Roman Catholic Bishop Joe Vasquez, and other workers’ rights proponents.  This was followed by nearly three hours of debate and discussion among School Board members.  In that debate many board members expressed concern about ensuring that wage rates for less-skilled workers also should be set high enough to provide a decent living – a “living wage” floor (for example, a minimum of $11 per hour).  This is an approach favored by the Equal Justice Center.

At the conclusion of its discussion, the Board voted to adopt the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates, to be supplemented by a living wage floor.  AISD staff were directed to consult with stakeholders and bring back to the Board a recommendation on what specific living wage level to use as the floor.  Board members voting in favor of the Davis-Bacon wage rates supplemented by a living wage floor were:  Gina Hinojosa, Tamala Barksdale,, Jayme Mathias, Amber Elenz, and Ann Teich.  Opposing the measure were: Cheryl Bradley, Vincent Torres, Lori Moya, and Robert Schneider.

The Equal Justice Center expects to continue working with AISD staff and the School Board to help them follow up by promptly devising and implementing a reasonable living wage level for the lowest wage workers.

EJC Attorneys Defend Workers’ Wage Rights in Important Federal Appeal

April 29, 2014

EJC attorneys, Aaron Johnson and Chris Willett, this week presented appellate arguments before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, defending the traditional wage rights of low-wage workers against the increasing efforts among many employers to roll back their traditional accountability for substandard wages in the business establishments they supervise.

The case involves a restaurant cook who worked in a restaurant that was part of the Craig O’s pizza chain in Central Texas.  For years the cook routinely worked over 70 hours a week, seven days a week, without ever receiving the overtime pay required by federal law.

In the summer of 2013, the cook, represented by EJC attorneys Johnson and Willett, won a jury trial in federal district court in Austin.  The jury, after listening to three days of evidence, rendered a verdict in favor of the cook and he was awarded $69,000 in unpaid wages and damages.  The jury also decided that the individual owner of the pizza chain should be held responsible for paying the unpaid wages – and not just the operator of the local restaurant – based on evidence that the chain owner had been actively involved in running the local restaurant and setting work schedules and had known about and taken advantage of the cook’s illegal wage rate.

This decision by the jury holding the chain owner responsible was critical in this case, because the local restaurant owner had long since gone bankrupt.  Moreover, the federal law for more than seven decades has placed responsibility for wages on all the individuals and business that supervise employees’ working conditions both to ensure compliance with the wage laws and to prevent adroit schemes under which the real employer can evade responsibility by hiding behind an insubstantial, nominal employer.

That is now the key issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals. The EJC attorneys have argued that the court should uphold the traditional broad definition of who is an employer in order to ensure full compliance with employee wage rights.  The attorneys for the defendant pizza chain owner have argued that the court should apply the law narrowly – minimizing employers’ responsibility and rolling back employee’s rights under the federal wage laws.  The U.S. Department of Labor filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the EJC’s and the cook’s position.  The National Restaurant Association filed a brief on the side of the employer.