February 28, 2012

(Denver) – House Republicans have defeated a measure to send wage thieves to jail.

Rep. Jonathan Singer’s HB12-1296, adding wage theft to the Colorado criminal code, was scuttled today in the House Judiciary Committee on yet another party-line vote. The tally was 6-5.

Current law treats wage theft – the failure to pay workers overtime, to shortchange them on their hours or even to skip out without paying them at all – as a civil infraction, punishable only by fines. Rep. Singer’s bill would have changed that, making the most serious offenders, those who willfully submit lowball bids because they know they’re going to cheat their workers, subject to up to 12 years in prison.

The bill “encourages responsible businesses, and more importantly, I think it will keep our most vulnerable citizens safe,” Rep. Singer told the committee.

Republicans on the panel acknowledged abundant testimony from a prosecutor, a professor, a pastor, the employment law bar, workers’ advocacy groups and a business owner that wage theft was a significant problem, especially for low-wage workers, and that the current civil penalties were an insufficient deterrent to unscrupulous employers. But the GOP voted as a bloc against the bill.

It was the first committee hearing for Rep. Singer (D-Longmont), who became a legislator on Jan. 27. He said his top priority was “getting Colorado back to work.”

“Part of that is making sure we have the laws in place to protect individuals that are working but aren’t getting paid,” he told the panel. “And this type of theft is in my opinion the worst kind of theft. It takes away people’s abilities to care for themselves and care for their families. This isn’t about stealing a TV or stealing a car, but about stealing someone’s ability to have a home or to have enough food to put on the table.”

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