Iowa City factory embroiled in wage theft dispute

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Organizer Misty Rebik is the director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, shown here at a Workers Speak Out forum meeting in September. -- photo by Adam Burke
Organizer Misty Rebik is the director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, shown here at a Workers Speak Out forum meeting in September. — photo by Adam Burke

On Tuesday, Nov. 18, the Iowa City Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that the Iowa City RockTenn factory, located at 2561 Independence Rd., had denied wages to at least a dozen of its temporary employees. Complaints from workers include being told to show up for work 30-45 minutes early for jobs for which they were not guaranteed to be selected, as well as being denied wages for weeks at a time.

The following day, the CWJ announced that they had filed the complaint at a press conference attended by several dozen supporters, including State Sens. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) and Bob Dvorsky (D-Coralville), as well as state Rep. Art Staed (D-Cedar Rapids). At the event, Bolkcom called wage theft, “Iowa’s number one crime.”

The filing started what CWJ Executive Director Misty Rebik expects will be a relatively long-term process. First, the case will be reviewed by the Department of Labor. If the department decides that the claims of wrongdoing warrant further action, an investigator will be assigned to look into each of the claims. Rebik says she expects that given the scope of the allegations — some 300 temporary employees currently work in the RockTenn factory — it is likely that further instances of wage theft will be exposed as a result of the investigation.

RockTenn media spokesperson Robin Keegan told the Press-Citizen that although the workers involved in the complaint worked in the RockTenn factory, they were actually employees of temporary staffing agencies CFA and Sedona. Keegan also denied claims that employees were asked to arrive at work early, and directed all pay stub related questions to the staffing agencies.

Rebik, however, says RockTenn’s deflections are a tactic common with large corporate employers in the U.S. While she acknowledges that the wages owed to the employees are technically owed by the staffing agencies, RockTenn directly benefited from their labor, and should be held responsible for making sure they get paid.

“What RockTenn has done, along with many other corporations across this country, is they’ve hired staffing agencies who work inside their factory,” Rebik said. “People go to the factory to get their jobs, so they work through the staffing agencies officially, but they work for RockTenn with RockTenn’s products, they’re directly supervised by RockTenn and the temp agencies.”

So with a pair of state senators supporting the CWJ and calling for RockTenn to pay their employees, why not file a complaint with Iowa Workforce Development rather than the federal Department of Labor?

According to Rebik, it’s because the state agency rarely does its job to enforce the laws that are in place. When an employee files a complaint with Iowa Workforce Development, the agency sends a letter to the employer requesting information about the case in question. If the employer doesn’t respond to the letter, however, the case is closed unless the complainant gets a lawyer. But unless the employee is a member of a union, they probably won’t be able to afford a lawyer because their wages have been stolen by their employer, and the cycle continues.

“There is no enforcement for workers,” Rebik said. “Now let’s say Iowa Workforce Development actually follows through with a complaint. What they do is they make the employer pay the worker what they originally owed. They don’t have to go to court, they don’t have to pay any fines, they don’t get anything on a record, they don’t experience any kind of criminal charges as an individual would if they were to steal something. So what happens is we’ve created this incentive for shady, unscrupulous employers that want to make an extra buck to just go ahead and steal from their workers because the worst thing that can happen is they’ll have to pay them what they originally owed to begin with.”

It’s not necessarily a lack of strict labor laws that has created this situation, but a lack of enforcement, according to Rebik. She says the Iowa Workforce Development has just two investigators for the entire state, and they receive over 100 complaints per month.

Rebik thinks the solution to this problem could come through action on a local level, and points to anti-wage theft ordinances passed by cities across the country in recent years. Often, the ordinances impose fines on businesses convicted of wage theft. Thanks to a wage theft ordinance passed last year in Chicago, employers convicted of the crime risk having their business licenses revoked.

“[The CWJ is] definitely looking for ways to work with our local elected officials, like the city council and board of supervisors, to see what kinds of actions we can take in the next couple years to really deter Iowa City area employers from stealing wages,” Rebik said. “We can’t just sit on our hands and wait for state or national officials to do something about this issue.”

The staffing agencies, CFA and Sedona, did not respond to messages left at their corporate offices, and CFA’s Iowa City phone number has been disconnected.

RockTenn has not yet responded to Little Village’s requests for comment.

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