Workers cheer as City Council passes stronger protections against wage theft

City Council passed a bill that was years in the making, as labor activists and union members cheered. Employers steal an estimated $728 million per year from workers in Colorado.
4 min. read
Cranes over Denver’s “golden triangle.” Oct. 29, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Carpenters, home care workers, labor activists and many others filled City Council Chambers as well as an overflow room and the hallway Monday as City Council unanimously passed an ordinance providing stronger protections for workers against wage theft.

The bill comes after the auditor's office recovered a record $1.1 million in stolen wages for workers in 2022.

The ordinance will now allow complaints to go straight to the auditor, as opposed to the courts, which should allow people to get paid faster.

The bill also includes independent contractors, so employers cannot avoid paying owed wages or benefits by wrongfully classifying workers.

Workers will also have the ability to take complaints up the chain of command to the company that hired the direct employer - even if that direct employer is insolvent and cannot pay, preventing a common tactic where employers shut businesses down rather than pay workers.

Councilwomen Stacie Gilmore, Candi CdeBaca and Amanda Sawyer, and Council President Jamie Torres, led the multi-year effort to pass the legislation, citing reports that employers steal an estimated $728 million from workers, and around $45 million in tax revenue, in Colorado per year.

Studies show workers of color and women are most at risk.

At a committee meeting in December, victims of wage theft shared their stories and spoke about the need for stronger protections.

But business leaders said they did not have enough opportunities to comment on the bill, and expressed concerns that the ordinance would add unnecessary bureaucracy as well as harm small and minority owned businesses.

Council opted to hold an additional meeting on the bill ahead of a full vote in order to further address worries from the business community. The final version - after over 30 drafts since 2019 - includes clarifying language to protect independent contractors, a 14-day notice before claims go up the chain of command and a requirement for an annual report from the auditor's office.

At Monday's public hearing, Jessica Kostelnik, who spoke on behalf of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and previously asked for more stakeholder input, maintained opposition to the bill. Kostelnik approved of the 14-day notice, but she wanted a statute of limitations and rules for how far upstream liability can go. She also expressed worries about the bill's effect on small businesses.

Council members emphasized that the auditor's office will maintain discretion and flexibility in handing out penalties, because the legislation is meant to encourage employers to work with the city and not meant as a punishment for errors committed by accident.

Members of the local carpenters union picket Denver City Council with signs protesting wage theft, Jan. 7, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

As workers shared their experiences with wage theft and expressed support for the bill, the mood in the room was celebratory.

One woman spoke of her experience as a homecare worker in Denver for over 15 years, and the many times she received short payments and checks that bounced.

Many members of the Southwest Mountain States Carpenters shared stories of wage theft.

"One instance of wage theft can be the difference when it comes to providing for their families and living with dignity," member Mark Thompson said.

Marcela Salazar, a leader with United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, called wage theft an "endemic problem."

Colorado Jobs With Justice Executive Director Pamela Reséndiz Trujano praised the bill, particularly the ability to seek accountability up the chain.

"Passing a wage theft ordinance is the single most important action we can take," Reséndiz Trujano said.

Council members spoke in support of the ordinance and the many years of work to bring it to fruition.

"I want to thank everyone who is here tonight, I know many of you started your day before the sun came up today," Gilmore said.

The bill passed to loud cheers from the crowd.

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