Minneapolis City Council members want to give workers more power to hold their bosses accountable for unpaid wages, following the state’s lead in improving policing of wage theft.
Before a chamber full of workers, some wearing fluorescent orange and yellow vests emblazoned with union logos, Council Members Linea Palmisano, Steve Fletcher and Phillipe Cunningham introduced a proposal Friday that would require employers to put all pay agreements in writing and provide regular written or electronic earnings statements to workers for transparency. A complementary ordinance would expand these protections to freelance workers, such as independent contractors or Uber and Lyft drivers, Fletcher said.
“No matter how people earn their income in the city of Minneapolis, we want to make sure they are paid what they’ve earned,” Fletcher said.
The ordinance proposal follows passage by a bipartisan group of lawmakers of one of the nation’s most rigid wage-theft laws at the Capitol this year, an effort to close the gap on an estimated $12 million in wages that go unpaid to roughly 39,000 Minnesota workers every year.
Fletcher praised the lawmakers and organizers who helped push the state law. “Now what we want to do is join the team,” he said.
In Minneapolis, low-wage workers of color are particularly affected by this practice, according to the ordinance authors.
Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, said her organization has been working on the issue of wage theft for more than a decade. “We’ve been able to recover about $2.2 million of stolen wages over the past 10 years, but it’s all been very reactive,” she said. The proposed ordinance would give workers a proactive way ”to have a real voice.”
The new rules would provide additional protections from retaliatory employers and create a streamlined system that allows workers to recoup wages without an attorney. Those who don’t follow the rules could face a misdemeanor charge and an escalating series of fines. The ordinance is still in draft form, but authors say the law would likely apply to any employees who spend 80 hours per year working in Minneapolis.
After the council meeting, several workers shared their stories of being victims of wage theft.
“Employers are basically treating [workers] like slaves — lying and persuading them but having a whole different agenda, basically looking at people of color like dollar signs,” said Mya Bradford, talking about her experience working in Twin Cities restaurants. “I really hope this law changes people’s lives drastically. I want to help mothers like me not have to stress so much about basic necessities and not have to work 24/7 so they can spend time with their kids, because that’s what really matters.”
Dan McConnell, business manager for the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 14,000 union workers, said there’s been a crisis in the construction industry of people not being paid for labor.
“I’m the grandson of immigrants who came to this country, who helped build our city,” said McConnell. “They built unions and they built the middle class. And we’re not going to stand for this — not on our watch.”
The ordinance language came from a working group of business owners and labor advocates, said Fletcher. Council members began working on the ordinance before the Legislature passed the state law. They decided to continue to pursue a Minneapolis ordinance so the city could use its staff to inspect and enforce the law locally, instead of relying solely on the state.
Palmisano said wage theft is a rampant crime in Minneapolis, and it’s been historically difficult to track.
“Doing something like this in Minneapolis gives us the tools we need as a city to make sure everybody gets paid what they already earned,” she said. “And it’s as simple as that.”
Minneapolis has increasingly been pushing new regulations over the past three years to better protect workers, particularly those in low-wage jobs. The city implemented a new sick- and safe-time policy in 2017, and it’s scaling the minimum wage up to $15 per hour.
Lauryn Schothorst, labor-management director at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment on the specifics of the proposed ordinance but said that the chamber “worked hard to pass the compromise state legislation that will help protect employers who inadvertently find themselves in violation of certain wage laws, while increasing penalties for employers who intentionally shortchange paychecks.”