Wage Theft: Victims’ stories – National Consumers League

Losing money that is rightfully yours is a heartbreaking and debilitating experience that affects not only the victim of wage theft, but the victim’s family and loved ones as well. Here are some of their stories.

Juana’s Story from National Council of La Raza

Juana is a single mother who supported her family by working 11-hour days as a cook in a restaurant where she earned $7.50 an hour, received no benefits or paid leave, and was never paid on time. Shortly before telling this story, Juana quit her job because her employer owed her nearly $3,000 in compensation for more than six weeks of work. Juana’s situation is common in the low-wage labor market, where informal work arrangements often include long and irregular hours, no overtime pay, no breaks, no paid vacation or sick time, and inconsistent payment, often in cash.

I was the only woman there and it was up to me to do everything in the kitchen of a restaurant that sold rotisserie chicken. I made all kinds of food: tamales, pupusas, and all the traditional dishes. I had some problems with my boss because he was not one to pay on time. Right now he owes us three paychecks, and he is even behind on our pay from last year. This pay period I left because I couldn’t take it anymore. He owes me one check of $1,000 and two more of $900.

In the two years that Juana worked at the rotisserie chicken restaurant, she never knew when she could expect to be paid. Juana’s employer told her and her coworkers that he couldn’t pay them regularly because he had to cover the restaurant’s operating expenses, including the rent and supplies.

I know the pressures he faces, but I get mad. Thankfully, with God’s help, I was saving some of the little that I earned. When he would say that he couldn’t pay us, I would leave him alone until he could. There are three of us who work there. The other women are still there waiting. They say that they are going to wait because our boss just has to pay us. They have hope. We were always there waiting because we needed the work. Sometimes you think that you can’t go anywhere else and you stay.

Juana’s missing pay has affected her health and her family’s well-being. While she waits for her employer to pay her, she has had to move her family and rely on the part-time wages of her two teenage sons.

You have to think about supporting your children and your stress goes up. Recently I moved because I don’t have enough to pay my rent. I’m just going to go back to talk to [my former boss], and I hope he can pay me even if it’s only for one pay period, or maybe he’ll pay me later. That is what I’m going to go see, and if he doesn’t pay me, well then I will have to get help. I can’t lose. That was my work that cost so much sacrifice.

Thank goodness my sons are studying and working now. My youngest son goes to school and works at night. He doesn’t make much, only $450 every two weeks. My other son also makes very little because he works a part-time job. They say to me, “Mama, don’t work! You shouldn’t work if they don’t pay you. What are you doing?”

Juana decided she would rather have no job and look for something new than continue to work and not be paid. As she searches for a new job, Juana has taken on temporary work cleaning and cooking to support her family. She has not given up on the back pay she is owed, but she hopes that she can find something better.

Source – Story from the National Council of La Raza, We Need the Work; Latino Workers Voices in the New Economy, 7/5/11

Unpaid Overtime

A sandwich shop hired an “Assistant Manager” to help in the day-to-day operation of the business. She worked for over 10 years for the restaurant and had seniority over many of her coworkers. As such, she often would open and close the shop, and would train new hires. Other than that, her job duties were exactly the same or similar to those of her coworkers. She made sandwiches, worked the register, and cleaned the restaurant. Because she regularly opened and closed the restaurant, she routinely worked 12 to 16 hours a day. Unlike her coworkers, her employer did not pay her overtime for any hours that she worked in excess of 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week, claiming she was a salaried employee and therefore exempt from payment of overtime.

In actuality, this “Assistant Manager” was not an exempt employee, but was entitled to payment of overtime wages for any hours worked over 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week. She was misclassified by her employer as exempt from overtime, even though her job duties were virtually the same as those of her coworkers.

Unless an employee’s job duties are deemed Executive, Administrative, or Professional, he or she is generally entitled to overtime compensation, even if paid a salary.

The case was successfully litigated against the sandwich shop on behalf of the client, and the judge ruled that the employee was entitled to over $40,000 in back wages.

Source – Story from Jones, Clifford, Johnson & Johnson, 6/16/11

Employee Misclassification

A case settled a while back by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Alvaro was a dishwasher at a family-style restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. He was being paid less than minimum wage and did not receive overtime. When Alvaro met with the employer to discuss the issue, the employer initially said he would pay all of the overtime wages Alvaro earned. A few days later, Alvaro was visited by the employer’s attorney who said that the employer would only pay a fraction of what Alvaro was owed and if he made trouble they would make trouble for him. When Alvaro filed a wage complaint with his state’s Department of Workforce Development, the employer’s attorney claimed that the company did not owe him the minimum wage or overtime pay because Alvaro was an independent contractor. Remember, Alvaro’s job was washing dishes for the restaurant in the restaurant’s kitchen.

If taken hypothetically, outside of the wage and hour context, Alvaro could have also found that his employer had treated him as an independent contractor under the workers’ compensation laws.  If so, Alvaro would have received no compensation if he were severely burned by scalding dish water in the workplace.  He may have also found that his employer had failed to pay its share of payroll taxes for unemployment insurance (UI), Social Security, and Medicare.  If so, Alvaro would have had to pay all of those taxes himself, and he would not have been entitled to UI benefits if he lost his job.  There is every reason to believe that Alvaro’s employer did not perform an appropriate analysis of his status under any law.  It is difficult to imagine a dishwasher for a restaurant could ever be a legitimate independent contractor.  Typically, these workers do not bring their own equipment, do not decide their own hours or method of work, and do not have a profit or loss motive.  In this example, the employer’s motive to evade the law seems clear and has devastating consequences:  Alvaro did not receive wages he rightfully earned until he filed a complaint with the appropriate state agency and they settled the case.

Source – Deputy Secretary of Labor’s, Seth D. Harris’ testimony to U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on June 17, 2011

Illegal Paycheck Deductions

Several Polish cleaning women came to visit the Interfaith Worker Justice-affiliated Arise Chicago workers center. As a condition of their employment, they were required to live in a dormitory floor housing eight women. Two women shared a small room and bathroom down the hall. Each woman was charged $300 per month.

Then there are the workers in Houston whose employer deducted $1900 from four workers’ paychecks, claiming he had paid a notary to petition for the workers’ citizenship.

The now famous Saigon Grill delivery workers in New York City, whose employer paid them less than $2 per hour, also deducted $20 in fines for being slow on entering information into the computer or slamming the door too loudly

The Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center assisted workers employed by Diverse Able. The first deduction from paychecks was $400 for flights from Puerto Rico.  Next was the advance on the first paycheck, plus interest, of course. The workers were initially charged up to $135 per week for four or five of them to stay in a two-bedroom apartment until the workers center intervened and the rent dropped to $65 per week (probably still higher than the true cost of the housing). Workers were charged $7 per day for transportation even if they didn’t work each day.

An employer in Chicago who handed out a list of fines for worker misdeeds that included:

– Being late for work – $100

– Being absent without giving at least 48 hours notification – $250 and up – Forgetting to lock the trucks – $100 from all crew members

– Smoking on job site or in company vehicles – $150 and up

– Possession of alcohol on site – first offense $500, second $1000, third $1500

– Quitting without giving two weeks notice will forfeit the worker’s previous weeks’ work, unless the worker had been there more than 6 months, in which case the worker must give a month notice or lose paychecks.

This employer sums up the policy: “If you think that your presence (spirit) at the job site is enough to get paid you are wrong. Before you are paid you must reveal the quality and quantity of your work and your loyalty to the company. In the future this is what your pay will be based upon.”

Source – Interfaith Worker Justice Executive Director Kim Bobo’s, testimony to U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on March 9, 2009