New Ordinance to Address Wage Theft, CAO Launches Wage Theft Unit

Published on July 19, 2021

Denver City Council today will hold their final vote on the City Attorney’s Office’s proposed wage theft ordinance. The proposed ordinance, sponsored by the City Attorney’s Office and supported by Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, would create a new crime to knowingly refuse to pay a wage or compensation to a worker or falsely deny the amount of a wage owed, the validity thereof, or that the same is due. The City Attorney’s Office will also establish a Wage Theft Unit within the office to prosecute cases that impact the average worker, where the amount of lost wages is less than $2,000 per violation.

“Wage theft at all levels disproportionately affects our most vulnerable workers, and it must be stopped wherever, whenever and however it occurs,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said. “This ordinance and the City Attorney’s Office new unit gives us the tools to close the gap in the wage theft laws here in Denver and fight for those workers who need the support the most.”

“Denver is taking the stance that employers can no longer take advantage of loopholes in our system to exploit our most vulnerable workers,” Councilwoman Sawyer said. “If you work in our city, you will be paid fairly for that work. And if you aren’t, there is now a better tool for you to get help. It’s a big step in the right direction.”

The District Attorney’s Office has authority to criminally prosecute wage theft under state law, however, they are currently only reviewing cases that are over $2,000 in lost wages per offense. Creating the Wage Theft Unit within the City Attorney’s Office would allow the city to criminally prosecuting these violations, as well as seek restitution on a victim’s behalf, giving workers an avenue for relief without hiring a private attorney. The new unit would also send a clear message to employers that wage theft will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law; wage theft is a criminal offense, not just a civil matter; and merely paying a fine assessed by the Auditor’s Office or Colorado Department of Labor & Employment (CDLE) will no longer be considered just a cost of doing business.

“We want to stand in the gap for these workers, especially during a time when so many people and families are struggling financially. This important code change and the creation of a special unit dedicated to these cases mean that lower wage earners who are victims of wage theft now have an additional, more effective way to seek justice.” said Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson.

Approximately half a million Coloradans suffer from wage theft every year, with losses amounting to over $750 million. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average minimum wage worker loses approximately $3,300 per year due to wage theft. After accounting for lost wages, that worker earns only $10,550 in annual wages – falling well below the federal poverty line. Statistics received from the CDLE show that in 2020, the department received 550 reports of wage theft in Denver; of those, 340 were claims totaling less than $2,000. Those 340 cases were never criminally prosecuted.

While a vast array of workers may be impacted, those most impacted by wage theft include agricultural workers, day laborers, caregivers (mostly childcare), construction workers, janitorial workers, restaurant workers and delivery workers. In all these groups, immigrants, refugees and people of color are disproportionately impacted by wage theft.


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