The Denver City Council unanimously passed several ordinances during its meeting Monday night, including implementing a new wage theft crime, eliminating mandatory STI testing for sex worker arrests, requiring special business licenses for massage parlors and reelecting council leadership.
The first ordinance creates a new wage theft crime to fill gaps in Denver’s existing laws.
Wage theft is when an employee is denied the wages or benefits they are rightfully owed, like when employers fail to pay overtime, force employees to work off the clock, violate minimum wage laws or do not pay employees at all.
Minimum wage workers who are victims of wage theft lose an average of $64 per week, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In Colorado alone, wage theft results in the loss of up to $750 million from workers per year.
“The current law in Denver makes those cases a little bit harder to prosecute than the state level wage theft cases,” City Attorney Anshul Bagga said. “(City code) requires us to prove that the employer or person committing wage theft had the intent to permanently deprive the victim of the wages.”
Bagga said it is often difficult to prove that intent in court because one of the most common tactics used to commit wage theft is promising payment in the future.
The ordinance addresses this loophole by adding a new crime to the Denver Revised Municipal Code, declaring it unlawful for an employer or an agent of an employer to “knowingly refuse to pay any wages or compensation owed to any worker or falsely deny the amount of a wage owed.”
The ordinance only applies to employees, not independent contractors; however, it includes a provision that allows a jury to determine whether a worker has been incorrectly classified as an independent contractor — a common wage theft tactic used by employers to avoid providing employee benefits.
General penalty applies to the new crime, meaning employers found guilty of wage theft could receive a fine of up to $999 and/or jail time of up to 300 days per offense.
Another ordinance passed Monday removes the city’s requirement that arrested sex workers receive testing for sexually transmitted infections.
Previously, anyone arrested for buying or selling sex was given seven days to get tested for STIs at one specific Denver Health clinic. The tests cost $65 each, a price established in the city code, even though Denver Health provides non-sex workers with free or low-cost STI testing depending on income.
"Mandating testing of STIs is something that the research really does not back up,” said Kevin Kelly with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “Voluntary testing and letting people have autonomy over their bodies is a much better way to addressing sexual health.”
Kelly said the previous system presents several barriers for sex workers, as they often cannot afford the tests or cannot get to the clinic, which is far from the east and west ends of Colfax Avenue where most sex worker arrests take place. In addition, the testing clinic is often full and must turn people away.
Under the previous system, only around 33% of arrested sex workers got tested for STIs, Kelly said. Those who didn’t get tested were added to the Health Order In list and could be arrested again.
The STI testing requirement will now be repealed and replaced by the state statute, which does not include any specification for required testing for sex workers; however, those arrested for buying sex are still required to get tested.
One of the main goals of the ordinance is to address racial disparities in sex work. In Denver in 2019, 43% of women arrested for sex work were Black, even though Black women made up only 4.8% of Denver’s population that year, according to the health department.
The final ordinance passed Monday requires special licenses for massage businesses in an attempt to combat illicit massage parlors in Denver.
Illicit massage businesses are businesses that provide sexual services while disguised as legitimate massage parlors. Senior Deputy District Attorney Lara Mullin said these businesses are often staffed by sex trafficking victims who were brought the U.S. under promises of different work.
“We’ve encountered workers inside of these businesses who are being forced or coerced to provide sexual services,” Mullin said. "We’ve also seen buyers who are going to these businesses to get a massage and are then provided sexual services and report it as a sexual assault.”
Mullin said sex traffickers hide behind illicit massage businesses and loopholes to exploit the workers. The workers are often foreign-born women who are forced to work illegal hours and often live inside the businesses in poor conditions.
The city estimates there are around 30 illicit massage businesses in Denver and 152 in Colorado. Nationally, there are an estimated 9,000 that generate approximately $2.5 billion in annual revenue, according to the district attorney's office.
Under the ordinance, massage businesses will need to apply for specific business licenses which require the owners to pass a criminal background check, provide contact information, disclose any previous licensure disciplinary action and provide proof of possession of the business location.
In addition to preventing certain felons from operating massage businesses, the licenses create more transparency regarding business ownership to help hold the owners accountable when businesses are found to be illicit, rather than the workers being forced to provide sexual services.
The ordinance also makes it illegal for anyone who owns or works for a licensed massage business to perform sexual acts in the business, live within the business or operate between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
The council also unanimously voted to reelect Council President Stacie Gilmore and Pro Tem Jamie Torres for another year. Both women were first elected into their current positions in July 2020.
The council elects new leadership every year. The president presides over council meetings, is a voting member on all committees, appoints committees and designates their functions. The pro tem fills in for the president when necessary. The president also earns a salary of $105,527, while the other council members earn $94,236.
“It has been a personal and professional honor to be elected council president, and even more humbling to be elected for another term,” Gilmore said. “I look forward to leading in partnership with Council Pro Tem Torres during this time of recovery and resilience.”