Advocates of higher wages, paid sick leave and predictable scheduling for Minneapolis workers say they plan to keep up the push in 2016 on another, less-discussed topic: wage theft.

Mayor Betsy Hodges and council members supportive of her Working Families Agenda have frequently mentioned the issue alongside their proposals on scheduling and sick leave. Workers' advocates say it's a substantial problem for many low-wage employees across the Twin Cities who are not paid for time they worked — and often fear reprisal if they speak up.

But while officials have proposed specific new policies on sick leave and scheduling, they haven't made a clear statement on how the city might play a role in cracking down on wage theft. Because state and federal laws already make wage theft illegal, it's not a question of outlawing the practice. Instead, advocates say City Hall could play a role in identifying the problem more quickly, helping workers and potentially even in taking action against employers who don't pay.

The workers' organization Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) has said the problem is widespread in the region. The group released a survey of 173 workers this year that found about half of those workers had experienced wage theft.

Council Member Lisa Bender, one of the council's leading supporters of the Working Families Agenda, said she believes city policies could be developed alongside a citywide sick leave ordinance. That discussion is in the hands of a new work group, which is set to bring back a sick-leave proposal to the council by late February.

Bender said the city's role in wage theft will largely be determined by how much it invests in staff dedicated to investigating and sorting out workplace complaints of many kinds.

"In the long term, it's a question of resources — how much we're willing to put into enforcing our workplace ordinances," she said.

Over the past few years, other cities across the nation have begun addressing the issue from a variety of angles.

In Houston, an ordinance passed in 2013 prohibits the city from doing business with people or companies that have been fined for wage theft or convicted of similar offenses. It also prevents those companies from getting a long list of city permits — which essentially makes it impossible for the company to do business in the city — for five years.

A Seattle ordinance that went into effect in April gives a newly created city Office of Labor Standards the power to investigate wage theft complaints and allows the city to deny permits if companies do not follow orders to pay wages. The same city office also investigates complaints over the city's sick-leave and minimum wage laws.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., where a wage-theft ordinance was implemented in September, the city also opened a new bureau to oversee complaints. Eve Epstein, the city's wage and hour coordinator, said her city is the first in Florida to pass such an ordinance, though some counties have their own.

So far, Epstein said she's received about one case each week to investigate.

Long hours, extra days

Brian Merle Payne, co-director of CTUL, said his organization directs workers to file claims with the state, since the city has no wage office. While his group has helped recover nearly $2 million in unpaid wages for workers, he said many claims don't go anywhere.

The state Labor Standards unit of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry receives 1,000 to 1,200 claims each year. A spokeswoman for the office said 50 to 60 percent of those complaints end with an employee receiving the wages he or she claimed.

Construction worker Yobany Castro, who has worked as a roofer in and around Minneapolis for a decade, said he's dealt with employers who made promises of wages and then failed to deliver. One contractor said he'd pay $700 every 14 days, but didn't follow wage and hour laws.

Castro said through a translator that he'd often work 14 hours a day, six days a week — which amounted to a rate of about $4 per hour. He said he's talked to many Latino workers who have faced similar conditions, and believes new policies at the city level could help.

"I think the majority of the community outside of the Latino community know about it, but the problem is that a lot of people are benefiting from the system," he said. "They really only care about the bottom line when they sell a house."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790