Center for Worker Justice receives funding to combat wage theft

Eastern Iowa’s Center for Worker Justice is hiring a full-time, bilingual, wage theft coordinator to help combat eastern Iowa’s wage theft problem after the center has seen an influx in wage theft cases.


Gabby Drees

Mazahir Salih poses for a portrait in her office at the Center for Worker Justice in Iowa City Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.

Liam Halawith, News Reporter

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement with the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa on Thursday.

The agreement allocates funding to the center for five years in the amount of $27,000 per year for a total of $135,000. The Center for Worker Justice requested this funding from the county and cities in Johnson County to help fund a full-time bilingual wage theft organizer position to take on the increased number of wage theft cases that the Center for Worker Justice has seen in the past few months.

This is in coordination with funds from the cities of Johnson County including North Liberty, which contributed $35,000; Coralville, which contributed $40,000 over five years; and Iowa City, which gave $118,000 over five years.

Mazahir Salih, the executive director for the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, said the influx in the number of people seeking help for issues relating to wage theft is also a trend nationally. Salih said Iowa is underprepared to take on all the cases occurring in the state, with the Iowa Division of Labor in Des Moines only having one investigator for all 99 counties.

The Center for Worker Justice has recovered over $170,000 in lost wages during its time in operation and expects to recover much more, Salih said.

Salih attributes the increase in wage theft to the pandemic and the financial stress it put on many businesses.

The Center for Worker Justice has many angles to combat wage theft. Their first method is to educate workers and employers on wage theft. Salih said the center will be focusing heavily on education when they have a full-time organizer in the position.

Kaille Simmons, a full-time organizer at the Center for Worker Justice said wage theft can happen in many ways.

Simmons said it can occur via stolen tips, improper payment of overtime, non-payment of overtime, paying workers partial wages, not complying with federal minimum wage laws, and misclassification. Amongst a long list of other reasons and ways wage theft can happen.

Simmons said this stems from a lack of knowledge among both employers and employees.

When wage theft occurs and a worker comes to the Center for Worker Justice for help, they have a standard procedure on how to handle it. First, one can expect a thorough investigation including gathering evidence on the alleged wage theft.

Once an organizer completes their investigation and finds that wage theft has occurred, they call the employer directly and give them a chance to correct it themselves with full confidentiality, Salih said.

If the employer doesn’t comply after an investigation and a call from the Center for Worker Justice, the center will send a certified letter with a delegation of local politicians and community members to the business to pressure them to resolve it.

If not resolved by then, the employers have seven days before the Center for Worker Justice takes further action which can include a protest, a press conference, a formal Department of Labor complaint, and even a lawsuit. This part is all up to the employee that brought the complaint.

The Center for Worker Justice attributed their success to their fast and proven methods, as opposed to the Department of Labor which can be a lengthy bureaucratic process, the Center for Worker Justice uses community action and pressure to recover lost wages, Simmons said.

“Lots of barriers to the complaint system on state and federal levels,” Simmons said.

Lisa Green-Douglas, vice-chairperson of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, said in a meeting in early June during a presentation to the board by the CWJ, that she is glad to see some community support from Johnson County for the Center for Worker Justice.

“[I’m] really glad that this is being formalized and that you all have a really strong plan to move forward. I have been on multiple wage theft recovery missions and they’ve been quite interesting,” Green-Douglas said to the Center for Worker Justice in a Johnson County Board of Supervisors meeting.