Labor groups criticize Colorado governor's veto of wage theft bill

In veto letter, Gov. Polis said bill would have let bad actors off the hook while punishing good actors
protestors on polis veto wage theft.jpeg
colorado capitol
Posted at 4:05 PM, May 23, 2024

DENVER — Hundreds of people gathered on the west steps of the state capitol on Thursday to protest Gov. Jared Polis’ recent veto of labor-related legislation, including a bill aimed at preventing wage theft.

An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work is what Jonathan Morales thought he was getting when he moved to Denver from South Texas a couple of years ago.

“I worked in downtown Denver, hanging drywall with a group of three friends,” Morales said.

But when payday came, he says the contractor refused to pay them.

“He kicked us out of the hotel that he had provided for us. We called the police, but they couldn't do nothing about it,” said Morales. “My three of my friends ended up going back to Texas and I stayed in my car, you know, looking for work here and there.”

He says another contractor cheated him out of money later that year.

“So both cases, you know, I was robbed,” he said. “I've met so many workers that are going through the same thing.”

A report from the Colorado Fiscal Institute found nearly 440-thousand low-wage workers in the state are victims of wage theft every year.

Their lost wages total up to $728 million.

And the impact goes beyond those workers.

Costs of wage theft in Colorado (2020)
Colorado Fiscal Institute's study, published in May, found that 68% of low-wage workers experience wage nonpayment.

The report says wage theft costs the state over $45 million in tax revenue every year.

Morales says many victims are often immigrants unfamiliar with the law.

That’s why he pushed for the passage of House Bill 1008, which would have held general contractors liable for wage theft committed by subcontractors.

“General contractors, they're the ones in charge of the project. So, they're the ones that are supposed to put the standards on the project,” said Morales.

The construction industry fought against the bill, arguing it would punish the wrong people and harm businesses.

Polis vetoed the bill last Friday.

“Wage theft is a deplorable crime,” Polis said in his veto letter to lawmakers. “Not paying employees for an honest day’s work is both morally wrong and against the law.”

Tax impact of wage theft in Colorado (2020)
In addition to the direct effect of money lost for low-income working Coloradans, there is also a loss to the public in the form of unpaid tax revenue, as the Colorado Fiscal Institute reported.

But the governor said HB-1008 was not the solution.

Polis said the bill “would let subcontractors who fail to pay their workers off the hook, do little if anything to prevent additional wage theft, and penalize good actors who pay all their workers on time.”

The governor said general contractors would end up paying for the same work twice. He said that would increase costs.

Shelby Wieman, the governor's press secretary, sent a statement on Thursday amid the protest at the capitol.

"Governor Polis is committed to fighting for hardworking Coloradans," Wieman said. "The reality is, Governor Polis has expanded collective bargaining rights for tens of thousands of workers, including bargaining rights for state employees and local government workers. Gov. Polis was clear in his vetoes that while each of the bills had good aspects, the bills in their final form were not in the best interest of the state, and our requests to the legislators to improve the bills were rejected. He remains open to working on each of these policies ahead of the next session to craft laws that support the objectives of the sponsors and organizations."

Associated Builders and Contractors – Rocky Mountain Chapter released a statement on Thursday supporting the governor’s veto.

“We support the veto of HB24-1008 because it went awry in targeting a single industry and inflicting consequences on all participants – even the 99+% of good actors,” said Jack Tate, the chapter’s president and CEO. “These consequences would have manifested themselves in higher construction costs to customers and the squeezing out of small businesses- many of them minority owned.”

Tate said a better way to prevent wage theft is by strengthening the enforcement of current laws.

“[Associated Builders and Contractors] believes that strengthening enforcement, increasing scope and funding for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and protecting worker rights are crucial steps to combat this injustice,” said Tate.

protestors on polis veto wage theft.jpeg

Morales said he’s disappointed in the governor’s veto.

“It just feels like all the workers got stabbed in the back,” said Morales, who now works at the Western States Regional Council of Carpenters, where he helps others who’ve been victims of wage theft.

“We're going to keep fighting the fight and keep improving the state, pushing bills, helping the workers that need our help,” Morales said. “Don't matter where you're from, what language you speak, or what color you are. If you work in this country, you deserve to get paid.”

Read Polis' veto letter of the wage theft bill below.

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