Seeking Justice in the Workplace

Rev. C.J. Hawking is a board member of the Community Renewal Society, the Executive Director of Arise Chicago, and the Harry F. Ward Pastor for Social Justice at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park. We are grateful to C.J. for sharing Arise Chicago’s recent success in spearheading the passage of the strongest wage theft ordinance in the country. Arise Chicago is an ally with Protestants for the Common Good in advocating for raising the minimum wage in Illinois.

On January 17, 2013 Arise Chicago, a twenty-two year old interfaith group that seeks to bring a fuller measure of God’s justice to the workplace, witnessed its groundbreaking wage-theft ordinance pass unanimously through the Chicago City Council. Now, if a business owner is found guilty of wage theft, the business license could be revoked. Effective July 1, 2013, Chicago joins San Francisco as the only two U.S. cities with such an ordinance.

Low-wage immigrant workers are most often the victims of wage theft, which occurs when workers are not paid the proper minimum wage, overtime, or not paid at all. A 2010 University of Illinois at Chicago study reported that in one week $7.3 million is stolen from low-wage immigrant workers in Cook County. Over $1 million a day is stolen from the very people who need it the most!

Arise Chicago has built partnerships between workers and members of the faith community to assist workers in finding their voice and to stand in solidarity. Over $5 million has been recovered, virtually all of it without litigation.

For example, a dry cleaner worker came to Arise for help in recovering $6,000. She was paid $5 an hour, not the Illinois-required minimum wage of $8.25. When the owner saw the worker enveloped by the people from the faith community, he confessed his dishonesty and paid the worker.

Another worker, Ana, is owed $9,400 from a bridal shop in one of Chicago’s “Mega Malls,” where small businesses rent stalls. Ana has learned that most of the 200+ mall workers are paid $6 an hour. With the new ordinance, Arise Chicago and the faith community now have greater leverage to advocate for these workers to be paid fairly.

A 2012 study by the University of Illinois Labor Education Program revealed that car wash workers in Chicago have an average of $4,413 stolen from them annually, about one-third of their wages! One of those workers, Jose, has worked 72 hours a week for ten years at a car wash. Although he was paid the proper minimum wage, the owner confiscated all of Jose’s daily tips along with the tips of other workers. With faith leaders at their side, Jose and his co-workers were successful in persuading the owner to stop stealing their tips. In fact, within the first month of Arise’s newly-launched car wash campaign, the faith community stood with workers to recover $50,000.

Here are some other ways people of faith can make a difference:

  • Put cash tips into workers’ hands, not in a jar or on a credit card statement.
  • Pay your workers fairly.
  • Support businesses that pay workers fairly and legally.
  • Ask questions of contracted businesses before hiring them.
  • Join Arise, PCG, and Raise Illinois in advocating for a minimum wage increase.

Scripture tells us: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and the wealth of its righteousness.” Let us all stand firm in seeking the wealth of righteousness, and returning the wealth to those who earned it!

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