Department of Geography and the Environment

UT research leads to new law protecting working families

Sat, June 11, 2011
UT research leads to new law protecting working families

Two faculty, Dr. Rich Heyman and Dr. Rebecca Torres, as well as many students from the Department of Geography & The Environment, contributed to a collaborative research project that played a key role in passing a new state law in Texas. The groundbreaking measure, which was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on May 27th, expands the ability of local law enforcement agencies to arrest employers who cheat their workers out of their pay. The Wage Theft Bill, which was sponsored by Senator José Rodriguez (D-El Paso) and Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D- Austin), creates a powerful mechanism for workers to recover their unpaid wages by strengthening criminal theft of service language. 

The research project, Building Austin, Building Injustice, teamed UT faculty affiliated with UT's Office of Community Engagement and a local community organization, Workers Defense Project. The research revealed that wage theft—when employers fail to pay their employees for their work—is a widespread problem in Texas. In certain industries like construction, wage theft occurs in epidemic proportions; research showed that one in every five Austin construction workers has been denied payment for their work. Wage theft undercuts responsible businesses who can’t compete, and hurts working families by forcing them to face unexpected hardships.

Workers Defense Project, which has assisted low-wages workers in recovering nearly $750,000 in unpaid wages since 2002, worked with the bill sponsors to draft the Wage Theft Bill. Dr. Heyman helped inform legislators about the research behind the bill.

In addition to the new state law, the research report has already contributed to a local law passed last year in Austin requiring employers to give construction workers a 10-minute break for every four hours of work, as well as policy changes at the federal level, including increased inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and more education and outreach by the Department of Labor.

"This new state law will positively impact the lives of thousands of working people in Texas, and the research collaboration shows how geography can make a positive impact on public policy and social change at many geographical scales," said Dr. Heyman.

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  • Department of Geography and the Environment

    The University of Texas at Austin
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