(WJAR) — Nick Brissette had been working under the same boss as a painter for five years, when his paychecks suddenly stopped.
“Emotional stress, grief, I mean I was almost homeless,” he said.
Brissette’s boss owed him $15,000 in earned wages.
"He stopped returning my phone calls. He told me to call a lawyer instead of calling him for my money," Brissette said.
He was a victim of wage theft, a crime committed by employers that targets hundreds of Rhode Islanders every year, mainly in the construction industry.
Brissette took matters into his own hands, creating a blog to find other workers victimized by the same employer, then filed cases against his former boss in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The case in Rhode Island was eventually dropped after his former employer failed to show up for court.
Since wage theft is a misdemeanor, the defendant couldn't be forced to return from Massachusetts.
The case did move forward in Massachusetts, but since it’s also a misdemeanor in the Bay State, the defendant walked away with three years’ probation.
Meanwhile, it took Brissette a decade to get his money.
“We need to pass laws to change the laws that are in the books right now because they’re not working,” he said. “They’re not going to punish employers for the things they’re doing wrong.”
Union leaders in Rhode Island agree, which is why they’re pushing for the state to pass a bill that would stiffen penalties for wage theft and the misclassification of employees as independent contractors.
As the NBC 10 I-Team previously reported, the legislation would classify cases of wage theft involving $1,500 or more as a felony, and punishable by up to three years in prison.
It would also allow prosecutors to obtain witness testimony, documentary evidence and bring cases in front of a grand jury.
“These types of things happen day in and day out across the state, all construction sites everywhere,” International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 11 Business Representative Justin Kelley said.
Historically, he said construction workers are the most likely to be affected by wage theft and misclassification.
“It happens quite a bit. We work very closely with the Central Falls Latino Worker Center, and they tend to field complaints I would say on a monthly, if not a weekly basis of workers facing wage theft," Kelley said.
Unions are also ague it’s a pro-business measure that would level the playing field for contractors and companies who are following the law.
Rhode Island employers misclassified an estimated 19,359 workers in 2019 in Rhode Island, denying them the right to overtime and health insurance.
Attorney General Peter Neronha, who also supports the legislation, said that doesn’t just impact victims, it also rips off taxpayers.
"By classifying these workers as independent contractors when they are not, they don’t have their own business, they are not working independently, you are cheating the taxpayer of the money that would come to the state," Neronha said.
Research from the UMass Labor Center shows that impact on your dime.
In 2019, an estimated $185 million in wages were never reported to the state, costing $25 million to $54 million in lost tax revenue.
The bill to upgrade the punishment for wage theft and misclassification of workers was initially filed last year in Rhode Island but failed to pass.
Union leaders, like Michael Sabitoni of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, hopes the outcome will be different this time around.
"If you steal $1,200 or $1,500 in Rhode Island it’s a felony, but if you steal a person’s wages as an employer it’s a misdemeanor, so in turn hopefully employers would think twice about exploiting a worker and stealing their wages," Sabitoni said.