Full day's work, not a full day's pay

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by ANDY PIEROTTI / KVUE News and Photojournalist DEREK RASOR

kvue.com

Posted on November 11, 2013 at 11:31 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 14 at 5:44 PM

AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders investigation has uncovered a rising number of Texas employers not paying wages owed to their employees.

Our investigation discovered that Texas leads the nation in wage complaints. This forces Texans to fight for millions of dollars in wages owed to them over the past few years.

Kimberly Gainer is one of those employees. Earlier this year the Austin cook noticed a lower-than-expected paycheck from her former employer Stepping Stone Schools, a daycare chain with several locations across Central Texas.

"I knew that they had been shorting me on my overtime, but I couldn't prove it. So I started taking pictures until I could prove it,” said Gainer.

According to documentation provided by Gainer, she claims someone at the daycare changed the number of hours she worked on Feb. 15 to show she worked 6.25 hours, instead of the 9.25 hours she actually worked.

“I told them they better pay me for it," she said. "And it took them about a week of me staying on them, saying 'When are you going to give me my check?'"

The Department of Labor and the Texas Workforce Commission investigate wage complaints. In 2009 the state agency ordered Texas employers to pay $10 million in unpaid wages. In 2012 that number jumped to $13 million.

DOL also saw the number of complaints nearly double during that same period, from 1,558 complaints in 2009 to 3,053 in 2012.

"We're talking about a very small fraction of employers really are out of compliance," contends Lisa Givens, the spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission.

Givens admits that while some violations are unintentional, others are done on purpose.

"We have a lot of people moving to Texas as well. I guess the increase could point to just a greater number of potential for more wage claims," said Givens.

The owners of Stepping Stone have paid a combined $4,956 in unpaid wages since 1996, according to DOL and TWC records. If TWC discovers a company intentionally did not pay employees, it can fine employers up to a $1,000 per employee wage claim.

Austin employment law attorney Mitchell Riechmann says fines are low and don’t offer much of an incentive for employers to follow the rules.

"I think $1,000 is not much of a fine because that employer probably saved just that much on that one employee," argues Riechmann.

Givens disagrees.

"I think the penalties and the fact that they can multiply, and I think our agency's ability to put liens and freeze bank accounts, is definitely a deterrent," Givens said.

TWC has never fined Stepping Stone, but the DOL confirms it now has an open investigation into the daycare. The federal agency won't say why, but Gainer received a letter a few months ago from Stepping Stone admitting it owed her $1,589.

“Obviously it wasn't just a one or two time thing. That's a big chunk of change," Gainer said in reaction to the letter.

Stepping Stone declined repeated requests for an interview, but owner Rhonda Paver sent the KVUE Defenders a letter. She wrote the DOL determined the daycare "had some erroneous, but unintentional $20 payroll reductions for employee uniform expenses" and that there "were other minor issues addressed."

Gainer hopes her story is a wake up call to others.

"If they're doing it to me, what's to stop them from doing it to you?" she asked.

If employees suspect they're not getting paid what they're owed, they need to act fast. The state's statute of limitations in Texas for wage claims is 180 days.

Suspect it’s happening to you? The Texas Workforce Commission has a phone number you can call for assistance: 1-800-832-9243 or 512-475-2670.

Employees can also file for wage claims online using various forms on WTC’s website.

The DOL has different requirements. Employees can determine if they qualify to file a complaint by calling the Wage and Hour Division at 1-866-487-9243. They can also visit this website.

The information below is useful to file a complaint with WHD:

  • Your name
  • Your address and phone number (how you can be contacted)
  • The name of the company where you work(ed)
  • Location of the company (this maybe different from where you worked)
  • Phone number of the company
  • Manager or owner's name (who should WHD speak to?)
  • Type of work you did
  • How and when you were paid (i.e. cash or check, every Friday)

Go here for to see the top 10 list of local businesses and entities ordered to pay back wages by the Department of Labor.

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