At around 5:00 pm every evening, Valentina Gomez and her husband Raul get their van ready to go to work. Mops, vacuum cleaners, and several bottles of different chemicals are just part of their working tools. They clean offices for a company out of New Brunswick, NJ. They work every night until 11 pm.
During the day, Raul works in an extruded plastics factory, one of the industries with higher percentage of workers’ accidents for dangerous exposure to burns with heating equipment—extruded plastic machines can work at up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit—long-term chemical exposures, excessive noise and other hazardous conditions.
Last year, Valentina slipped at work, broke her shoulder and needed surgery. As she and her husband are undocumented immigrants, the company immediately laid her off. After consulting with a pro-bono lawyer, she was able to get some reimbursed money for hospital expenses, but Valentina was unable to work for several months, tend to her three children or even get dressed by herself, obviously, without compensation.
A common story among many who come looking for the “American dream” and encounter the American nightmare, undocumented Latino immigrants fall in the category of informal labor: car washers, waitresses and cooks, hotel employees and landscape, poultry or farm workers, and the list can go on.
Many get paid below the legal minimum wage, are forced to work overtime without compensation, work changing shifts without off days, or pay for their own tools and mandatory uniforms. As many carry fake social security numbers (the so called “números chuecos” ), they do not receive any additional compensation when they get sick, or have to take care of a family member, or just need a deserved vacation.
Even workers born and raised in the U.S. are victims of wage theft
Even workers born and raised in America are faced with the reality of corporations and employers who take advantage of them in the workplace, which has created an increasing income inequality in America.
Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) published a press release announcing a class action suit against Walmart Stores Inc.
The union alleges that the corporation and “its staffing agencies broke federal minimum wage and overtime laws by requiring temporary workers to appear early for work, stay late to complete work, work through lunches and breaks and participate in trainings without compensation.” The suit is looking for four years of compensation for 20 initial plaintiffs but others might join in.
In 2009, Kim Bobo, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, published her book Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid-And What We Can Do About It, a detailed work in which she explains how and why employers steal from workers.
From globalization to contingent workers to a big push against organized labor and unions, she says, corporate America has done a swift job at taking away basic workers’ rights and legal compensation.
Even the government by means of multiple federal and state legislation, and a variety of agencies where laborers should file their complaints for different reasons—there is no centralized authority that would receive a multiple complaint case—makes it difficult for workers and most get discouraged and stay in vulnerable conditions or change jobs expecting to be treated more fairly.
Labor laws are complex and hard to interpret, and lawyers are expensive to seek representation.
According to the Economic Policy Foundation, a pro-business think-tank, the estimate of yearly wages stolen in overtime only is $19 billion. Even when court cases are pursued, the settlements paid by corporations are worth the risk, Bobo said. Companies like UPS and Walmart have settled law suits in the past for a few million dollars to be distributed among thousands of employees.
Where is the money coming from?
But the total squeeze is estimated at $100 billion a year. Wage theft is not only taken from forced uncompensated overtime, lack of paid health or retirement benefits, and other legal obligations under labor law. Unhealthy and inappropriate working conditions as well as lower wages diminish the ability of workers to achieve good performance at work and increases health issues. It also takes away opportunities to spend time with, save or provide for their families.
Wage theft also creates disadvantaged competition with ethical businesses that pay the required taxes and insurances. Labor laws can be confusing, and employers might ignore or just disregard parts of the law or changes to the law unknowingly. They might also engage in unlawful practices to keep costs down, such as laying off some workers and doubling the work on those that remain employed.
State and local governments are also managing to increase declining revenues by means of enforcing zero tolerance traffic violations, privatizing the correctional system and charging defendants for court cost and for occupying a cell.
In New Jersey, drivers can opt to pay a hefty increase in a speeding ticket—almost 100 percent of its original amount—to see a reduction in points on their license and avoid a court date, a costly predicament for an hourly worker who cannot miss work. When the fine is not paid, accumulated interest and penalties can add up to thousands of dollars and loss of driving privileges.
In other states, tossing a cigarette butt on the street or finding a small amount of marijuana in your pocket can become a three-figure fine. Not cutting your front yard lawn, forgetting to enter the empty garbage can or confusing the day the garbage is collected can also get you in trouble with city fines and warnings.
Although Bobo’s book ends in optimistic recommendations to end the wage theft national crisis, as she puts it, reality is way more discouraging. A stronger intervention of federal and state departments of labor, a simplified set of labor laws, a widespread education and training of workers in labor rights, strengthening of unions and protection of civil rights are just some of the daunting tasks at hand.