CLEVELAND — Cleveland City Council voted to pass an ordinance that makes it illegal for the city to do business with any known violator of certain labor laws.
“This is what I think is one of the more worker friendly bills that we've passed at Cleveland City Council,” Council President Blaine Griffin said. “And we're happy to be a part of the movement to make sure that working families have protections in place.”
Its passage is a victory for the Guardians for Fair Work, a group of local organizers who brought the issue to council’s attention about a year ago.
They spent that time calling city councilors, meeting with the community, starting petitions and writing policy to make a change.
One of those organizers, Aisia Jones, said she experienced wage theft firsthand when she was working at a grocery store as a teen.
“They would cut our hour breaks, the teenagers, they would cut our break short to 30 minutes at a time,” Jones said.
At the time, she didn’t realize what was happening was against the law.
“I thought, this is just how it is,” Jones said. “I think that’s what happens a lot.”
She said wage theft is when businesses shortchange employees.
In her case, she was forced to work those 30 minutes she wasn’t clocked in.
Other examples of wage theft are when an employer pays less than minimum wage, withholds overtime pay, fails to pay for all hours worked, or misclassifies a worker.
“The demographic that it really affects is primarily people of color, people who don't have the opportunity to advocate for themselves, who are just so afraid to get in trouble or be sent back to their home country, or not have the opportunity to grow here in the United States,” Jones said.
Justin Strekal, a lobbyist from Cleveland who has worked on campaigns across the country, also got involved quickly.
“We believe that it's incredibly important that the city commit to using taxpayer dollars to fund programs that benefit all Clevelanders and only work with businesses that do right by their workers,” Strekal said.
Data from Policy Matters Ohio, shows there’s an estimated 213,000 cases of wage theft in Ohio each year, averaging about $2,900 per worker.
“Here in the city of Cleveland, when the median income is only $31,000 a year, it's nearly 10% of a worker's pay,” Strekal said. “That's money that they're not spending in local businesses. That's money that they're not spending on paying their rent or their mortgage. That's money that they're not spending to have a quality of life here.”
While both Jones and Strekal said they’re happy about the passage of the ordinance, they’re already focused on next steps, like ensuring its proper enforcement.
“This is just part one, so there’s still work to be done,” Jones said.
Businesses who are seeking funding from the City of Cleveland will now first go through the Fair Employment Wage Board, where they’ll be required to disclose any instances of wage theft or payroll fraud.