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Tougher wage-theft law offers hope for poor workers

 Thomas Cameron hopes a toughened Texas anti-wage-theft law that takes effect on Thursday will help him recover the money he says a Galveston cleaning company owes him.  The amended law ends a loophole that allowed some employers to pay only a portion of wages they owed, one of several forms of wage theft that officials say is rampant in the Houston area.  Cameron was among more than 20 homeless people who received no wages on payday two weeks ago after being recruited at the Galveston Salvation Army shelter to clean vacation rentals.  The company finally handed out paychecks Saturday, but Cameron said he received about half of the $140 he was owed.  "This makes no sense to have to wait seven days for a paycheck and then wait some more," Cameron said.  He and others sought advice from Joe Compian, a counselor at Gulf Coast Interfaith.  "Who is going to believe someone who is poor, unemployed, living in a shelter, doesn't talk very well in most instances, has a limited education and sometimes even a criminal record?" Compian asked. "(Employers) are banking on the fact that these homeless individuals don't have the knowledge or the desire to follow through and collect their money."

The problem of the homeless, day laborers and penniless job-seekers being refused paychecks affects all races and ethnicities in the Houston region, said Hamilton Gramajo, organizer for the Houston Interfaith Justice Center.  "They cheat on workers every day," Gramajo said.  The center received more than 200 wage-theft complaints over the last six weeks from the Houston region, Gramajo said. Over the last five years, the center helped workers reclaim about $560,000 in unpaid wages, he said - a little more than 18 cents on the dollar.  Sam Dunning, a member of Houston Mayor Annise Parker's immigration and refugee affairs committee, said the problem is so pervasive that the committee is discussing the need for an anti-wage-theft ordinance. Houston labor attorney Melissa Moore said few employers have been prosecuted under state law. (click on link to read full story)

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