Call to action

The Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s Nehemiah Action Assembly will advocate for fair wage practices in the coming year. The assembly has taken on social justice issues in past years, including juvenile incarceration and youth unemployment.

Last November, Austin Rife, a delivery man for Baroni’s Pizza in Mount Pleasant, noticed he was working longer hours, but his paychecks were getting smaller.

At the time, Rife wasn’t just delivering pies; he was washing dishes, sweeping floors and breaking ice buildup with a sledge hammer and a chisel in the shop’s walk-in freezer, too.

Sometimes, he said, he worked between 50 and 70 hours a week. So shortly before Christmas, he printed out his time sheets and brought up the pay discrepancy with his boss.

Rife, 20, claimed his time cards were being changed. Then in January, he was let go.

On Monday, Rife and others like him will share their stories with about 2,000 people from different faith traditions at the third annual Nehemiah Action Assembly to advocate for fair wage practices.

Hosted by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, an interfaith alliance of 27 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations, this year’s gathering at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston will be the largest to date, organizers say.

Named after an Old Testament cup-bearer to a Persian king, the Nehemiah Action Assembly has tackled social justice issues such as juvenile incarceration, early childhood education, restorative justice and youth unemployment.

After last year’s assembly, members of the Justice Ministry held meetings with their congregants and voted to address wage practices next.

“We received so many complaints,” said the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church. “It’s a big issue. So many people have been affected by it and are being affected by it right now.”

Fair wage issues are particularly prevalent in the generally low-pay, few-benefits food service industry.

Since 2004, more than three dozen Lowcountry restaurants, including Baroni’s Pizza, have been cited for illegal wage practices. The U.S. Department of Labor uncovered instances where management forced cooks to work off the clock, doctored time cards, withheld overtime pay and skimmed servers’ tips.

Baroni’s Pizza was cited for eight violations in a Labor Department investigation that concluded in 2007.

Rife’s former boss, Baroni’s Pizza owner Jason Baker, said Rife was clocking in too early and out too late, spending more time than necessary closing and cleaning the store.

“This is not wage garnishment,” Baker said. “This is, ‘here’s how long you have to do your job and I can show you how long it has to take to get it done.’”

According to Rife, he’s owed about $1,500 in unpaid wages.

“It should not be so onerous for those who have been ... deprived of their wages to be able to recoup what they earned,” said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. “We need to make it easier.”

Justice Ministry members spent six months researching fair wage issues in the Charleston area and solutions to the problem.

At Monday’s assembly, faith leaders will call on the Charleston County Council to approve new funding to hire a legal aid attorney whose case load solely would consist of wage claims.

“We’re not asking for new legislation. We’re not asking to do a general wage increase. What we’re saying is enforce the laws,” Rivers said. “Workers should enjoy the same protections as businesses and other entities in our state.”

As for Rife, he has a new job now, working in construction for Aqua Blue Pools.

His current boss, he said, makes an effort to ensure employees are “getting taken care of.”

Rife will share his testimony with the Nehemiah Action Assembly through a pre-recorded video while he awaits the arrival of his first child. He said he’s sharing his story in hopes of making a difference.

“It’s so much more than about me getting the money back,” he said. “To see some sort of actual fairness come out of this ever-worsening world is something — that would be a really nice change.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.