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 Essential Workers

The Plight of Houston’s Low-Wage Essential Workers During COVID-19 . . . and Five Things We Can Do Right Now to Change It




Wage theft is a practice by which employers cheat workers out of the wages they are legally owed. Employers use different strategies to avoid paying workers. These include not paying the agreed-upon amount, paying under the minimum wage, failing to pay overtime, making illegal deductions, misclassifying employees as contractors, and others.

In Texas, about 11% of low-income workers experience wage theft, and the average victim of a minimum wage violation is cheated out of over 30 percent of earned pay. Our Worker Center recorded $1.2 million in stolen wages during 2018, with the average claim being $3,600. 


Discrimination is unjust treatment toward a certain group of people due to prejudice against that group. Discrimination in the workplace happens when a person is treated unfairly, is harassed, is denied a reasonable workplace accommodation, or is retaliated against because of their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability.

Racial discrimination is a real and serious problem in our society. Some examples of ways a workplace could exhibit a racist environment are displaying racist symbols, allowing insults or inappropriate jokes, damaging an employee's personal belongings, or fostering psychological abuse.


Sexual harassment is any uncomfortable behavior related to someone’s sex. It can take the form of unwanted advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical pressure or intimidation. Offensive comments about a person’s sex are also sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can take the form of physical conduct, nonverbal conduct, verbal or written harassment, visual manifestations, or differential treatment.

Sexual harassment is widespread in the US workforce overall, and is especially pervasive among low-wage workers.


Labor trafficking is the act of forcing, defrauding, or coercing a person into forced labor or sexual exploitation. In 2016, there were approximately 16 million people around the world who were forced to work as domestic workers, in construction, in factories, and in other industries.


Labor trafficking is the most prevalent form of human trafficking and affects approximately 234,000 workers in Texas. Victims of human trafficking have rights and may have immigration protections. If you suspect that someone you know is being forced, defrauded, or coerced to work, report it by calling 1-888-3737-888.


All workers have the right to a safe workplace. However, construction is one of the deadliest industries, and in 2015, the worker fatality rate in Texas was even higher than the national average.


When FJWC and its partners surveyed over 300 day laborers in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, we found that 85% of the workers had received no training at their affected worksite, and the majority of workers were not informed about the risks of mold, fallen power lines, contaminated waters, or other hazards.



One of your most important (and often overlooked) rights as a worker is the right to organize and bargain collectively with your employer. Under the federal National Labor Relations Act, you have the right to join or form a union, as well as to act together with your coworkers to improve your pay and working conditions (with or without a union). It is illegal for your employer to prohibit you from participating or retaliate against you for participating in these types of activities. For example, it is illegal for an employer to forbid you from going to meetings after work, to reduce your hours, or to make threats because you tried to organize.

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