AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- After one too many 60-hour weeks at a construction site where the boss skipped payments to workers, Guillermo Perez asked for his final paycheck. The boss had other ideas.
"It was found he was acting in bad faith," Perez said, describing the results of a state investigation to lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday. "But he didn't suffer no repercussions."
Perez, who ended up paying fines on his household bills as his family fell behind, urged the House Committee on Economic & Small Business Development to advance protections for workers.
Wage theft was only one of several persistent concerns for working people to make a repeat appearance on their agenda. Members also heard two identical -- and familiar -- bills seeking to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
No witnesses testified against the workers' rights bills. But even as their sponsors emphasized the importance of a strong workforce to business development, they expressed only measured optimism for progress in a Legislature dominated by conservatives. As he left the hearing, Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal of San Antonio said, "every session we advance the ball down the field."
For some companies in Texas, wage theft has become a profitable business model, several witnesses said. Two years ago, after a University of Texas study found that one in five construction workers had wages stolen by employers, the Legislature tried to strengthen the laws governing theft of service. Specifically, lawmakers eliminated a loophole that had allowed employers to avoid criminal penalties by making partial payments.
But last year, the agency charged with enforcing state employment laws still made no criminal prosecutions against employers for wage theft. John Moore, the director of the regulatory integrity division of the Texas Workforce Commission, said the cases are too difficult to prove. Under current law, prosecutors must show that "at the time of hiring an employee, the employer intends to avoid payment of wages owed to the employee."
Instead, Moore said, the agency issued hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties.
Even so, the vast majority of complaints resulted in no action. According to state records cited in a bill analysis, the agency found employers had "acted in bad faith" in less than 12 percent of the 1,028 cases investigated last year. Current law allows the commission to penalize employers who act in bad faith, but does not define the meaning of bad faith.
The new proposal, SB 340 by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, would define acts of bad faith to include repeat offenses, retaliation against workers, reckless disregard of the law and failure to pay multiple workers. It would add a new provision requiring the workforce commission to penalize offenders with fines of up to $1,000.
"This continues to be a rampant problem," testified Aaron Johnson, a lawyer who represents workers at the nonprofit Equal Justice Center. "The victims of wage theft tend to be the lowest paid, most vulnerable members of our workforce."
Other proposals before the committee addressed discrimination in the workforce. HB 1419, by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Harris County, would use census data to compare earnings against factors including gender, race and age. The information, she said, could help marginalized workers campaign for equal pay.
Democratic Reps. Villarreal and Eric Johnson of Dallas both offered bills that would prohibit discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Villarreal, who has made the same proposal without success in past legislative sessions, said his HB 238 would help attract employers to the state. Citing census records, he said 46,000 same-sex couples live in Texas.
"If somebody plays by the rules, shows up, gets the job done, they should be treated like anybody else," he told the committee.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Most major Texas cities have similar laws.
Rep. Johnson stressed the business case for the protections.
"There is a perception about Texas that we are not as progressive on issues like this as other parts of the country," he said. He added, "we're interested in protecting the rights of everyone."
The committee heard testimony from Eric Alva, the first Marine wounded in the Iraq War, who said he is protected from discrimination as a Latino and a military veteran, but not as a gay man in Texas.
"Every person across the state I call home deserves to be treated equal," Alva said.
In previous sessions, Villarreal has been alone in his campaign for the legislation. This time, his bill has been joined by similar proposals from other lawmakers, though the companion bill in the Senate has been left pending for three weeks. As the hearing concluded, he urged the committee to take action.
Chairman John E. Davis left the bill pending.
"We will take that under consideration," he said. "Under due consideration."