With Help of RNs, Lift Up El Paso Sees Passage of Wage Theft Ordinance

Nurse Yadira Cabrera interviewed in front of El Paso city hall.

A commitment to community health can extend far beyond the hospital walls. Just ask El Paso TX-NNOC RNs.

Working with Lift Up El Paso, an alliance of labor, community and faith-based groups, the El Paso nurses have been fighting for a wage theft ordinance, demanding fair pay for city workers. On Wednesday, there was reason to celebrate, as it was unanimously passed by the El Paso City Council.

“A Wage Theft Ordinance that is effective and enforceable means that El Paso workers will now better be able to collect wages that had been denied to them by their employer,” says Sylvia Searfoss, RN, who noted that—as El Paso is one of only two cities in the country to pass such an ordinance—Wednesday’s vote was a landmark moment where “history was made.”

Wage theft has been a serious issue in El Paso, where—according to a 2011 wage theft report conducted by Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project—20 percent of low-wage workers receive less than minimum wage, 67 percent of low-wage employees who should receive overtime pay do not, and 12.5 percent of low-wage workers are victims of wage theft. Women were also found to suffer more wage violations than men, with over 27 percent of surveyed women paid below minimum wage compared to 14 percent of men.

The current wage theft ordinance seeks to address these statistics by allowing the city to refuse or pull contracts with businesses that break the ordinance. A pending amendment to the ordinance—fought for by Lift Up El Paso—also seeks to allow the city to pull licenses and permits for offending businesses. The current ordinance benefits city contracted workers; the amendment would cover most workers in the city.

Lift Up El Paso representatives say they expect the amendment to pass sometime in the next 60 days, although they will also keep pressure on city council to ensure its passage, as businesses potentially mobilize against it.

Meanwhile, El Paso RNs say they are happy the city has voted in favor of fair wages for workers—and also grateful for the connections they’ve made with local unions and social justice organizations, throughout the fight. Lift Up El Pasto coalition allies have even come out to support nurses in their bargaining.

“I think the passage of this ordinance sends a message to the business community that workers are standing together for justice,” Searfoss says.