Category Archives: Consumer Affairs

Houston, We Have A Wage Theft Problem!

The good folks with the Down With Wage Theft campaign released a report on the impact wage theft has on the community (PDF), and let me tell you, it’s worse than one would generally think. Wage theft has affected the worker and workers’ families in the millions of dollars, but it has also affected the entire Houston economy. As strong as one might feel the local economy has remained despite the recession (or as strong as Forbes thinks the job outlook is), it seems to me it could have been a lot better. Especially for ordinary working people if  they had been protected from those who prey on them.

Here are some of the highlights:

Wage Theft is a Community Problem:

  • Wage theft becomes a problem to the community as a whole because of: (1) the sheer prevalence and pervasiveness of wage theft; and (2) the individuals’ connection to the broader community undoubtedly has collateral effects on their families, the public, the taxpayer, the local economy and even other businesses.
  • An estimated $753.2 million dollars are lost every year due to wage theft among low-wage workers. The consequences of this loss further depress working family incomes, resulting in decreased community investment and spending and limited economic growth.
  • Over 100 wage and hour violations occur in Houston every single week, a conservative figure that still demonstrates the pervasiveness of wage theft in the city. Although it is prevalent in the Houston construction and restaurant industries, it affects all types of industries, especially low-wage work.

The System Charged with Wage Enforcement is Failing:

  • Across the board, agencies and institutions – including the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, the Texas Workforce Commission, the Courts, and community organizations – face many limitations, including understaffing, financial barriers (for both institutions and workers), and lack of enforcement and jurisdiction.
  • As a result, many workers are left unprotected, either through exclusions from the law or financial barriers to reporting and pursuing wage theft cases.
  • Weak employer enforcement and near non-existent consequences for violations make wage theft recovery increasingly difficult and also fail to deter future wage theft occurrences.

Houston has Many Opportunities to Bring Down Wage Theft through Community & Policy Action

  • Throughout the nation, communities have been resisting wage theft by implementing creative community actions and successfully pushing comprehensive policy solutions at the local and state levels.
  • Houston can capitalize on successful models nationwide, as well as on its own local innovation, to create better wage theft prevention and recovery mechanisms based on the needs of the region’s industries and workers.
  • The city can take action by facilitating wage claims and resolutions through an administrative hearing process, increase employer consequences to improve wage theft recovery and prevention, and strengthen worker protections against retaliation for reporting wage claims within the city.

That last one is very important and is something our City Council should take action on ASAP. The City has an opportunity to set a high standard and show its commitment to working people by taking such an action.

The Chron Visits Sharpstown

Chris Moran at the Chron took some time out of his busy City Hall schedule to do this write-up on my new neighborhood–Sharpstown. While Moran reminds us of the various negative things in the area, such as crime and some blight, I cannot but agree with my Council Member Mike Laster.

District J Councilman Mike Laster, a longtime Sharpstown activist and resident, compares his community today to the Heights of 15 years ago and Midtown a decade ago.

There are many components to revitalization, Laster explained. “The first and most important one is changing people’s attitudes about your area.”

Laster and Acquaro point to bricks and blueprints as evidence that Sharpstown is poised for a revival.

I think Sharpstown does suffer from a PR problem, as much as any of the cosmetic problems. And the perceptions, as they come from different people even within the community, are quite different, too. It seems when there is a discussion about Sharpstown, people either skirt the issue or come close to blaming the diversity of the area for the problems, while also trying to appreciate it.

I attended an HD-137 candidate forum this weekend and one of the candidates brought up “the old Sharpstown mall,” now known as PlazAmericas, and how all of the anchor stores are long-gone. The problem is, most shopping centers in the area don’t have anchor stores either; such as those huge shopping centers in what is known as Chinatown. It may be for obvious reasons:  It’s a challenge for anchor stores to locate and market in shopping centers which market to specific groups.

Perhaps a major reconstruction of the area will open a door, as is being done to Chinatown. Some cosmetic improvements have also been done to the PlazaAmericas area. To simply point to the problem is not enough; if you want to improve an area, then you have to work on bringing in investors and businesses, as well as push government to provide the necessary resources–law enforcement, city services, etc.–to help a business community thrive and a community revitalize. I see that commitment from CM Laster and from various leaders who have resided in Sharpstown and have chosen to stay.

Moran points to KIPP and other private schools in the area, including HBU, which will be working on expanding some of their offerings. And those institutions reach a few people; however, the vast majority of students are in public schools and there must be a commitment to improve those–whether in Gulfton, Sharpstown or any of these areas. Good, safe school do not only provide an educational foundation, but they also provide a base for community relations–organizations, cultural events, and community activism. Without investment in the public infrastructure, changing people’s perception will be an even bigger challenge.

Nonetheless, there are various issues in Sharpstown, and these are the same issues that affect most other neighborhoods in Houston–crime, blight, slow progress on economic development, etc. And as various entities partner up to improve the area, there needs to be some sort of cheer squad to pump up the positive aspects of the area:  its diversity–ethnic, cultural, and economic–and even small business opportunities. And it will take the most important part of Sharpstown to get this done–its people.

My neighborhood has a little bit of everything and nothing made me feel more hopeful than driving by a low-income apartment complex which has been improved and seeing its residents hold a community garage sale and car wash to raise money to keep improving their little community. And that’s just one instance of many that can make any Sharpstown resident feel hopeful.

I’m looking forward to Sharpstown’s process of revitalization–the process, not just the end product.

Federal Stimulus Created or Saved Over 250,000 Jobs in Texas

An economic study commissioned by TPJ concludes that federal spending through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) saved or created at least 264,459 Texas jobs by the end of 2010. The economic modeling study generally confirms the Texas job creation figures reported directly to the federal government by ARRA grant recipients (243,814). The study refutes Governor Rick Perry’s pronouncement that the stimulus “created zero jobs.”

This is not surprising; however, the Rick Perry’s Republican mantra that this money was a giveaway that produced nothing took hold of the Texas media. And this really speaks to my disgust at the Texas media’s continued love affair with Rick Perry–even after a failed presidential campaign and a failed tenure as governor.

Thanks to Texans for Public Justice for this comprehensive report.

Without $7.7 billion in federal stimulus funds, Texas employment would have taken a dive, the study finds, imposing far more pain on hundreds of thousands of Texas families.

Could you imagine how many more jobs Texas could have saved if it had not cut off education, public health and more from Texans?

A Better Explanation of a Bad Idea

After reading this article on the “scaled-back” version of the Mayor’s notion of permission-based charitable meals, I must say that I continue to be against it. What I stated in my previous post about the scaled-back plan was true.

But if this is all about private property rights, then I would think that the property owner has every right to drive anyone off of their property utilizing what is on the books, no?

And how does the Chron describe it?

Although the administration previously had pitched the initiative as a way to protect homeless people from unsafe food and to coordinate the efforts of charities to avoid duplication and wasted food, the stripped-down proposal amounts to a property rights ordinance.

Only, this time around, it seems the cops get to be the ones to proclaim who’s trespassing, rather than (like the rest of us) the property owner reporting any infraction.

The proposed rules would allow police officers to ask servers for proof of written permission from the property owner any time they observe meals being served. If proof is not produced, police can cite the servers on the spot with a fine of as much as $500. The charge can be prosecuted in municipal court.

In other words, cops can question a charity to see if they can be on a property without need of a formal complaint from a property owner. So, guilty until one produces proof?

No, Mayor, I’m not for that. And I implore my new member of Council Mike Laster to vote NO on this ordinance.

We started with protecting the homeless from bad food and ended up with good people required to provide proof that they can be at any given location. I don’t like it when they do this to immigrants (and profiled Latinos), and I sure as heck won’t like it when they do it to people lending a hand.

3rd Centavo: Clean Energy and the Environment As Houston Latino Issues

by Dr. Reynaldo Guerra

Maria Cardona, a CNN Contributor, wrote a great article on the environment being a Latino issue nationwide.  She makes a strong case for the environment and clean energy being ‘linked’ for Latinos.  I completely agree, but I’d take it a step further.  While the term ‘linkage’ does imply a connection, it doesn’t necessarily connote dependence, and all evidence points to there being a strong dependence between the three, especially here in Houston.

The nerd in me can’t resist the opportunity for a science analogy here.  Let’s start with a definition:

Symbiotic Relationship: A relationship between entities that is of mutual benefit or dependence. (Note: 100% of scientists don’t agree on this definition, but that’s a separate discussion better had over a frothy beverage.)

I’m not sure how old I was, I was probably still playing with G. I. Joes, but I remember learning about symbiotic relationships in science class.  I still remember the picture of the small fish (a remora, it turns out) swimming, almost with a smile, next to a very mean looking shark.

Even a superficial look at our current situation in this country illustrates the fact that Latinos, the environment, and clean energy all have a symbiotic relationship (I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to decide the shark leaving crumbs for remoras in this metaphor).  The three are all dependent on each other in some way or another. Each thrives and is much healthier for the other.  Their survival may even depend on their having a healthy relationship.

Given the fact that Houston is the energy capitol of the world and Latinos are 44% of her population, this tri-symbiotic relationship is especially pronounced here in Houston.  Let’s frame the discussion.

Green Home Construction

There is a large contingent of Latinos here in Houston that are blue-collar workers.  It’s even fair to say that anytime something is built or constructed, Latinos will likely play a major role.  I recently visited a LEED Gold certified elementary school as a part of our mayor’s Green Building Tours Initiative (kudos, Mayor Parker).  Not only was one of the creative designers a Latino from Paraguay, but it’s a safe bet that most of the construction was performed by Latinos as well. Given the population and demographics of the construction industry, solar panels, low-E windows, insulation, or any other green measure installed in Houston will most likely be installed by Latinos.

Building Energy Efficiency: REEP

Unfortunately, the City of Houston’s Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP) appears to be on the chopping blocks.  However, since 2010 REEP is responsible for having created, by some estimates, almost 1,000 jobs and for having made thousands of low-income homes energy efficient.

To put REEP’S environmental benefits into perspective, residential and commercial buildings account for 67% of all electricity consumption and 40% of CO2 emissions in the U.S. (DOE).  Either African-Americans or Latinos occupy the vast majority of low-income homes in Houston.  Energy bills are also a much bigger percentage of income for low-income communities.  Making homes energy efficient in the 4th largest city in the country has a huge impact on the environment and on the health and pocketbook of the Latino community.

The REEP program not only created blue-collar jobs for Latinos, it also created managerial and entrepreneurial opportunities.  Four prime contractors were initially awarded the REEP contract.  Two of them were minority owned: Payless Insulation (woman-owned) and PMG Project Management Group (Latino-owned).  The government requirement that prime contractors subcontract out 25% of their work to minority- or women-owned firms has created significant opportunities for Latino entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers.

The Mayor and the City of Houston have made strong commitments to a Green Houston.  They have publically stated a goal of becoming number one in the nation in Energy Star and LEED certified buildings and have committed to making 30 million sq. ft. of city property energy efficient by 2020.  The realization of these goals will undoubtedly lead to more blue- and white-collar jobs for Latinos.

Environmental Justice

The GOP has been in the news lately attacking potential environmental regulations as ‘”job killers.”  Well, not only is the opposite true (see case studies all over Europe and even Austin, for example) but, as Cardona points out, for millions of Americans, especially Latinos, clean air regulations are “life-saving regulations.”  This isn’t surprising, since most occupied areas affected by pollution happen to be inhabited by Latinos or African-Americans.  Again, this is especially true in the Houston area, Pasadena being a prime example.  With respect to creating jobs, retrofitting existing equipment or installing new equipment to meet environmental regulations requires labor, excellent job opportunities for Latinos.  Again, regulations that target pollution and carbon emissions are both health preserving and job creating.

With the recession still in town, it behooves the Latino community to rally around policy, elected officials, and businesses that support the environment and clean energy initiatives.  Our health and ability to put food on the table may depend on it.

Dr. Reynaldo Guerra is a Houston small business owner and Chair of the Greater Houston Civic Coalition.

Criminalizing Charity? Who Else is Targeted?

That’s what I get from this whole thing about regulating charitable meals for the homeless. Or else, why the misdemeanor?

But the rules on the way to council tomorrow (see item 10) have been characterized by opponents as criminalizing charity because of the fines of up to $2,000 for violations of the new rules.

I can understand, and even appreciate, the public spin of the intent to have safe food and cleaner facilities; however, we’re talking about nonprofit organizations attempting to help people.  As the regs go:

The rules would:

  • Limit feeding of the homeless on public property to Tranquillity Park, Peggy’s Point Plaza Park and a park on Chartres Street just north of Minute Maid Park. Written authorization of the property owner would be required for feedings on private property.
  • Require feeding organizations to register with the city and to take a food safety training class.
  • Require that the food be served within four hours of preparation (or removal from temperature control).
  • Mandate that the feeding site be left “in a clean, waste-free, litter-free condition.”
  • Make violations a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $50 to $2,000.

Don’t get me started on “feedings,” but giving HPD (or an inspector) a license to arrest or ticket helping organizations seems a bit, no, it is too much. As far as the other rules go, there couldn’t be just a simple agreement between the City and the organizations? A criminal penalty is required? Let’s not even talk about the cost of enforcement when we have real crimes to address, especially if HPD only “assists” an inspector.

And how far does this law go? Let’s define “demonstrable need,” because there are other groups who provide charitable meals (see how easy it is to not to say “feedings”?) to day laborers, some who are immigrants, beyond downtown. How would they be affected? And would 287(g) and S-COMM come into play if an overzealous cop were to assist any inspectors? Because we know those overzealous ones exist.

I think the ordinance leaves too much open to interpretation. Maybe the Mayor and some council members might say it is not the intent, but what about when they’re gone? The homeless, or anyone else in need, should never fear some sort of raid when all they want is a little sustenance. And neither should those who give from the heart.

Mayor and Council, please reconsider and come up with a better way of addressing this issue.

UPDATE:  The ordinance was delayed for a couple of weeks.

Council members Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie said they would like to hold off on mandatory rules until after a campaign that promotes voluntary compliance with some of the proposed rules, such as clean-up of the sites where food is served.

I would say get rid of the excessive fine and criminal penalty, too.

The Campaign Against Wage Theft in Houston

There’s a story in today’s Chron about several workers walking out of Ruggles in Montrose for what is described as lack of pay. Specifically, it is about workers who work for tips getting shortchanged. The owner of Ruggles says he’s working on it, but is also embroiled in other legal issues. Still, legal issues aren’t much of an excuse to not pay some folks.

Again, this is just one example of an ongoing crisis called wage theft. Here in Houston, there is now a movement asking Mayor Annise Parker and Houston City Council to take a stand against the practice:

It is time to take action now considering that: Wage theft disproportionately impacts those who already live in poverty ; Workers who aren’t paid are forced to fall back on public safety nets and government assistance in order to keep their families economically afloat; Wage theft is unfair competition since employers paying prevailing wages cannot successfully compete with businesses that reduce their costs by committing wage theft. We believe that you can take action to level the playing field for responsible businesses and bring economic justice to thousands of hard-working Houstonians. We urge you to work together to make Houston a Zero Tolerance city for wage theft.

While the Mayor and other politicians present a positive picture for corporations and small business, I think it would be a good idea to combine that with a pro-worker environment by taking a stand against wage theft.

The campaign is a coalition of organizations which represents the interests of ordinary folks–people who work for a living, provide for their families, and keep the economy running. Unfortunately, it is this very group of people that is easily targeted for wage theft by those companies who are more interested in profit than a good product.

The Coalition is asking the Mayor and City Council to draft a Wage Theft Ordinance that “expedites the process to resolve wage theft claims, includes a viable enforcement mechanism, and aims to prevent future wage theft cases.” And through a strong process, a message is sent that Houston will not tolerate such practices.

If you are part of an organization that represents community interests, become a part of the coalition. If you’re a concerned member of the community, sign the petition and even give a little.

Occupy Wall Street by Lalo Alcaraz

Nationally syndicated cartoonist and activist Lalo Alcaraz just posted his latest creation. He sure is a wizard with the symbolism, huh? Please share.

Eight Arrested Protesting KBH’s Anti-Jobs Vote

Eight pro-Jobs activists were arrested yesterday after staging a sit-in at the Mickey Leland Federal Building. Showing their disappointment at Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn’s “no” vote on President Obama’s American Jobs Act, hundreds of protesters, including folks from SEIU, Good Jobs = Great Houston, and the Occupy Houston movements, among others, assembled at the federal building.

Three women and five men were charged with criminal trespassing. The demonstrators also included representatives of the Jobs Not Cuts organization.

In a display that put to shame the County Commissioner’s lack of support for more Harris County jailers, HPD sent out 50 officers, some in riot gear and others on horses, to arrest the eight activists and “control” the 200, which included some good people I know. That’s 1 officer for every 4 protesters, right?

Kudos to the protesters. I’m of the opinion that a movement should take the fight to those in power–the elected officials–and this protest did just that. The final step, though, is finishing the job–by voting and then staying involved.

EEOC Sues Bass Pro Over Discrimination

This just came into the inbox and I thought I’d put it out there. During a time in which people are in need of jobs, companies should learn from this lawsuit. You can lose more than just a good, hard-working pool of applicants if you discriminate.

According to the EEOC’s suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division (Civil Action No. 4:11-CV-3425), Bass Pro has been discriminating in its hiring since at least November 2005.  The EEOC’s suit alleges that qualified African-Americans and Hispanics were routinely denied retail positions such as cashier, sales associate, team leader, supervisor, manager and other positions at many Bass Pro stores nationwide.

The lawsuit alleges that managers at Bass Pro stores in the Houston area, in Louisiana, and elsewhere made overtly racially derogatory remarks acknowledging the discriminatory practices, including that hiring black candidates did not fit the corporate profile.

“Excluding qualified individuals from employment because of their race or ethnicity or in retaliation for exercising protected rights are fundamental violations of the laws we enforce,” said Jacqueline A. Berrien, Chair of the EEOC.  “The EEOC will diligently protect the rights of job applicants to ensure that hiring decisions are based on abilities, not on race or ethnicity.”

The lawsuit also claims that Bass Pro unlawfully destroyed or failed to keep records and documents related to employment applications and internal discrimination complaints.  Bass Pro punished employees who opposed the company’s unlawful practices, in some instances firing them or forcing them to resign.

Here’s the full copy of the press release. So much for buying some hunting gear there. Cabela’s, here I come.