From a podium in Minneapolis’ City Council chambers, Gilberto Sarmiento told the story of working on a construction site for five months and never getting paid.
“The total wages were over $10,000,” said Sarmiento, his bluejeans stained with white paint, speaking through an interpreter.
Mya Bradford told council members of the night her cash register came up $50 short while working at a restaurant. She said her supervisor presented her with a choice: Either pay the difference out of pocket or make it up by having sex with a co-worker.
Lloyd Brown spoke about routinely being a victim of wage theft throughout his teens, but he didn’t know who to turn to for help.
At a public hearing Monday, more than 20 people spoke in favor of a proposed citywide ordinance that would provide stronger protections for workers against wage theft. Many shared stories of how they were victimized by employers and helpless to recoup their losses, saying the ordinance would have protected them.
“This law is the best thing to happen to Minnesota since Prince,” Brown said.
The ordinance proposal comes in the wake of a new statewide wage-theft law that’s being hailed as the strongest in the nation. Proponents say a city-specific policy is also needed, however, to open up more city resources to help enforce it — and because wage theft is particularly problematic in Minneapolis, especially for workers of color.
“In the Civil Rights Department, we hear about wage theft every day,” Brian Walsh, enforcement supervisor for the city’s labor standards department, said at the hearing. “Unfortunately, there’s little we can currently do about it.”
He said theft of wages totals tens of millions of dollars a year in Minneapolis.
If passed, the ordinance would require employers to put all pay agreements in writing, provide regular written or electronic earnings statements to workers and give all employees a copy of the law. It would also allow workers to report their bosses for retaliation related to the new policy. The city could force violators to pay back wages, cover investigation costs or pay a civil fine.
A coalition of business leaders, including the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, has raised some concerns with the ordinance, asking the City Council to hit pause as employers adjust to the state law. But union members, labor activists and state and local politicians have expressed wide support for the proposal. Before the public hearing, hundreds showed up for a rally outside City Hall, many wearing green construction vests, to promote its passage. Among them was Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who said his office would pursue legal action against any violators.
“We would rather have compliance with the law than a lawsuit — but we will do a lawsuit if you make us,” Ellison said. “Yeah, it’s about the money — but it’s about dignity, too.”
Mayor Jacob Frey echoed that sentiment.
“You better damn believe it, we are going to be enforcing this law,” Frey said. “It’s only fair that if you work a full week — you work your tail off — that you should get paid what you agree to get paid in the very beginning.”
The City Council will vote on the ordinance next week.