What can the church do for worker justice in America?

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U.S. employers routinely violate the seventh commandment when they refuse to pay their workers their legally mandated wages.

Growing up in what she describes as a “pretty conservative church background” in Ohio, Kim Bobo excelled at memorizing her Bible verses. “I won all the contests,” she remembers. “It has served me well in my life. You can’t really know the scriptures and not realize their core commitment to caring for our neighbor. My life has been about trying to figure out how I play a role in helping people and how I can do that in the most effective way possible.” 

Throughout her career, which has included stints as an organizer for Bread for the World, as the “church lady” in a training center for organizers, and as the founder and director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), Bobo has consistently worked to energize faith communities in the pursuit of social justice.

She first got pulled into her current focus on workers’ rights when she helped organize religious support for the 1989-90 Pittston Coal miners’ strike. That experience planted the seed that eventually—with the help of Chicago’s legendary Msgr. Jack Egan—led to the founding of IWJ.

Although not Catholic herself, Bobo has immersed herself in and given many workshops on Catholic social teaching. IWJ’s network of worker centers even tries to resurrect—in an ecumenical version—the now forgotten movement of 200 Catholic labor schools that taught workers’ rights in parish basements in the mid-20th century.

“For all of us,” Bobo says, “we’ve got to find the places where we can make a difference and stand up and do it.”

You founded Interfaith Worker Justice primarily to bring faith communities together with labor unions. How has your focus shifted in recent years?

Our work has expanded a lot. Initially our focus really was on putting together religious groups to support labor issues. We set out to rebuild those partnerships and work together on organizing campaigns. And we still do this work.

But in recent years the labor movement has been faced with incredible challenges. There is not only a shrinking of numbers but a shrinking of organizing going on, and on the other hand an increasing number of workers are being taken advantage of. So as we built these interfaith groups, pastors started sending us workers who had all these problems.

Can you give us an example?

I remember getting a call from a couple of restaurant workers. They hadn’t gotten paid and had experienced all kinds of horrible things. So I called my friends at the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, HERE, which is now UNITE HERE.

I said, “I’ve got a small group of restaurant workers who haven’t gotten paid. Can I send them over to you?” They said, “No, Kim, we don’t really do restaurants in Chicago. We’re really organizing hotel workers.” I said, “But you are the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, aren’t you!” We had 30 workers from the same restaurant who walked out on the job and wanted to sign union cards that very day. The union did help these workers, but it wasn’t structured to help small groups.  

Now, I understand and support unions being strategic about where they focus their efforts, but we ran into many other workers with all kinds of problems in industries that no one was organizing. 

At some point we decided to create a workers’ rights manual. We had assumed that one existed already, but nobody had put together a basic workers’ rights manual. I mostly saw it as a little side project, so when workers called, we could just send them the manual and then get back to our “real work.”

But once you do a manual like that, then people think you’re the experts, so more people called. We ended up hiring an organizer to do a workers’ rights training program. Whenever he went on the radio, we would get inundated with phone calls. Basically it shut our phones down.

It gradually dawned on us that we had to do something more, and that evolved into the creation of worker centers. We started helping to build worker centers around the country, and then other centers affiliated with us. Now we have 27 worker centers in our network.

Worker centers are focused on helping low-wage workers who are not unionized advocate for their rights. The primary problem the worker centers see and address is wage theft.

What exactly is “wage theft,” and where does it occur?

Wage theft is when employers illegally don’t pay workers for all their hours or don’t pay them for their work at all.

The most common way this happens is by not paying the minimum wage. The law is very clear: If you work, you have to be paid minimum wage. It’s $7.25 an hour at the federal level; in Illinois it’s $8.25.

Everybody’s supposed to get at least minimum wage, but the largest study that’s ever been done of low‑wage workers—those who earn $10 an hour or less—found that one out of four just flat out doesn’t get paid the minimum wage.

Probably the biggest wage theft occurs when workers are not being paid overtime. Again, this same study of low-wage workers showed that of those who work more than 40 hours a week—and thus are owed overtime—three out of four aren’t paid overtime.

Many middle‑income, non-exempt workers don’t get overtime either. Employers say, “I don’t pay overtime. If you want to get overtime, find another job.” In this economy, some employers will even say, “We can’t pay more than 40 hours a week. But if you don’t get your job done, you’ll get fired.” Workers will work 45 hours a week but put down 40 because they’ll get fired if they don’t.

Just the other day I saw a woman who works in a day care center. She makes $9.95 an hour. For any time she works more than 40 hours, she should be paid at time and a half—about $15—but she’s not. She’s probably cheated out of at least five hours a week. That’s $75 a week, $3,600 a year. For a worker who’s making about $18,000 a year, $3,600 is a lot of money, and her situation is not unusual.

Where else does wage theft happen?

Another big area of wage theft in this country is employers calling workers “independent contractors” when they’re really employees. This means that the employer avoids paying taxes, while the worker has to pay double payroll taxes—his or her side and the employer’s side—as well as FICA and Social Security.

It also means that they don’t have workers’ compensation; they don’t have unemployment. They’re not going to get overtime, and they’re exempt from a whole range of worker protections.

This has become very common in the construction industry, where some companies turn almost all of their workers into independent contractors. Janitors are often called independent contractors. I’ve even seen dishwashers in the back of restaurants called independent contractors.

Some say, “Oh, the laws are so complicated,” but most of this stuff is not complicated at all. If you get up in the morning and you look in the mirror and say to yourself, “I’m going to work for myself,” then you are an independent contractor. If you get up in the morning and say, “I have to go work for Mr. Smith,” you’re an employee, you are not an independent contractor.

Then there are problems with tips as well. Few people know that one out of 10 tipped workers—such as waiters at restaurants—don’t get all their tips. If you put your tip on a credit card, you cannot be sure that the worker will actually get it. We always tell people to pay their tips in cash if they don’t know for sure.

And another big problem is workers not getting paid at all. Every day laborer you interview will have the experience of not getting paid at some point. Writers have the same problem. The Freelancers Union did a whole campaign called “Getting Paid, Not Played.”

There is one thing we need to keep in mind when we are talking about all of these kinds of wage theft: It’s not only about what’s fair and morally right, but it’s really about things that are blatantly illegal. The laws are clear.

So if it’s illegal, how do employers get away with wage theft?

First, there is woefully inadequate enforcement in the country. At the federal level, there are 1,000 enforcement staff to protect 135 million workers, so that’s one enforcement person for every 135,000 workers. Obviously, this is not enough to stop wage theft, even if you add the approximately 500 state enforcement staff we have in this country.

Until recently, the penalties in most places were insignificant. The worst thing that would happen to you was that you would have to pay the wages you should’ve paid in the first place and nothing more. If that’s the case, why not cheat your workers because if you’re going to get caught, it’s not a big deal.

Thankfully, some states are strengthening enforcement, and under Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis the federal government has become significantly more aggressive.

The second reason why employers can get away with wage theft is that we don’t have enough strong unions. If you have a union in the workplace, you’re probably not going to have wage theft because the union will fight against it. As we’ve seen unions decline, there’s been a decline of that advocacy force. And unions not only support their own workplaces, but they have a positive ripple effect in other workplaces.

The third reason has been the really terrible economy that we’ve had, which has left people so vulnerable about losing their jobs. People say to me all the time, “Kim, I know my employer’s cheating me, but at least I have a job.”

And the fourth reason is the fact that we have 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country with no path to citizenship. They feel vulnerable, and that creates an environment where employers who want to exploit people can find workers who are pretty easy to exploit.

We know of a number of employers here in Chicago who don’t want to hire anyone but undocumented immigrants, because they only want people who they can exploit easily.

It’s really important that we push for comprehensive immigration reform. That will not just benefit immigrants but really all workers in the country.

Where are churches and religious organizations falling down on the job, in terms of worker justice?

There are quite a few churches who pay their musicians as independent contractors. They’re not independent contractors. They have to be there at 8:30 on Sunday morning. They may be part‑time employees, but they are still employees.

Very few churches are considering workers’ pay when they contract jobs. For example, the Archdiocese of Chicago has a rule that if you have a contract that’s more than $50,000, then you’re really supposed to try and bid at union. If you bid a job union, you’re going to be assured that workers are paid fairly. What I’m told happens is that if a job is $100,000, some pastors will break it up into two or three contracts so that it can be under the $50,000 threshold and not have to meet that criterion.

Folks will go with the lowest‑bid contractor, who may do a fine job but is probably bidding that job super-low by paying people as independent contractors, because that’s what happens in the construction industry. They’re probably not paying them workers’ comp either.

I once met with a church’s contracting committee. I asked them, “What are your values around contracting?” They said, “We want good quality work for a cheap price.” I said, “Well, there is a third value you might want to consider: How about that the workers are paid fairly?” They said, “Well, maybe, but can I still get a cheap price?”

Cheap is really not a biblical value. In my family I’m the queen of cheap, but you can’t do cheap at the expense of making sure that workers are paid fairly.

When churches bid work for construction or when they go to hire a janitorial crew, they tend to always go with the cheapest price and not ask any questions about how workers are paid.

Whether it’s to remodel your kitchen or to repair the roof of the parish church, when it comes to contracting, if you don’t ask how workers are paid, you are likely contributing to wage theft.

What questions should people be asking when they get bids for contracts?

How do you pay your workers? Are they all paid as employees? Do they have benefits? Are you paying overtime? Do you pay workers’ comp?

I needed some repairs done on my back porch, and the union contractors did not want my back porch job because it was just not big enough. So I called five contractors and said, “Before I consider you, I need to ask you questions about how your workers are paid.”

The responses I got were quite interesting. Several contractors told me, “If you’re going to ask those questions, I don’t want your work.” Another guy was very forthcoming and told me, “They’ve been with me for a long time, they’re all paid as employees, they have benefits.” And then I had one guy who yelled at me, “If you’re trying to cheat my workers, they’re long-term workers, and the right thing to do is to pay them fairly!” I said, “I’m on your side, I agree with you.”

But it’s telling if they won’t answer the question. You should rule them out if they say, “They’re paid as independent contractors.” 

Many churches don’t have a lot of money to pay people fair wages or benefits. To some degree, that is expected as part of working in “ministry.” Where do you draw the line here, so you’re not exploiting people?

I understand it’s not easy. When I wrote my book on wage theft, I realized that we needed to clean up a few things at Interfaith Worker Justice as well.

I used to think, “Oh, the work we do, we’re not covered by overtime,” but that wasn’t entirely true. We’ve changed some of our policies on this. Frankly, it’s been hard, because I have some employees who really want to do a good job, and sometimes that takes more than 40 hours in a week. Most of the time we have to say, “I’m sorry, you can’t work more than 40 hours, because we can’t afford to pay you more.” The law is very clear on this. It didn’t seem as clear before I worked on this issue, but it is, actually.

I certainly know what it’s like to run a nonprofit and struggle to make ends meet. I get that. I’m part of a church that’s struggling to make ends meet, but at the absolute minimum we have to follow the law. Then as employers we also  have to figure out how to put a plan in place to get people up to a living wage. We may not be able to do it tomorrow in some of our nonprofits, but over time that’s got to be a value for us.

Should the church, both nationally and locally, do more for workers’ rights?

I do think churches are not doing as much as we could on a lot of levels. Part of that for me is that we’re failing the business community. We don’t talk about ethics in business from the pulpit. Business leaders who make key decisions are sitting in our congregations and not hearing anything on that.

Business schools in most Catholic universities teach virtually nothing about wage theft. There is almost nothing about labor, nothing about how you pay people. We are failing to create important values conversations within the business community.

Secondly, we do very little training on workers’ rights in our congregations. That used to be a great history in the American Catholic Church. From the 1930s to the ’50s, there were 200 Catholic labor schools that taught workers’ rights in the basements of parishes. In some ways our worker centers continue that legacy now in an ecumenical fashion.

Thirdly, I think a lot of religious leaders, whether it’s on the diocesan or parish level, don’t know enough about the businesses and the working conditions in their own communities.

Having done a lot of organizing work here in Chicago, I know that often there would be a strike about a really horrendous situation happening in a company, and when you’d call the churches in that neighborhood, no one would know anything about what was going on. Many of them were willing to get involved if I called them, but they weren’t connected.

And finally, churches could give people more advice and guidance on where to shop and eat and where not to.

If you were the pastor of a Hispanic parish here in Chicago and you had a lot of low-income immigrant workers as your parishioners, how would you go about training parishioners on workers’ rights?

The first thing I’d do is to call Arise Chicago, the worker center here, and ask them, “Would you send somebody out to do some worker rights training in our parish?” They would come and do it.

Then I would form a small team of parishioners to get trained to assist people in filing complaints when they have wage problems.

At St. Pius V Parish in Chicago, workers regularly tell the priests about wage theft or other abuses at their work. The parish then helps to organize parishioners to picket or to meet with the owner. They really put direct pressure on employers in their neighborhood. I’d love to see more parishes doing that.

In immigrant parishes, many parishioners work in sectors where wage theft is common—in construction, restaurants, home care, child care, car washes, landscaping, poultry and meat packing.

Parishes could really help people navigate those systems, understand what their rights are and that they’ve got protections. The labor law does protect people, regardless of immigration status.

If you do things together with others, your parish can stand with you. That’s what community ought to be about.

Read more about wage theft from Kim Bobo in "Resources for preventing wage theft."

This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 6, pages 18-22).

Image: Photo courtesy of Interfaith Worker Justice