“The workers arrive at the Center tired, frustrated and almost without hope of being paid. They have only their faith in God, which helps them continue believing that they will eventually recover what they need to support their families. They wait, and wait, for the law, which is always slow. And once they win their cases, they wait more-because they cannot recover what they are owed.”
Those are the words of Director Maria Marroquin of the Day Worker Center, speaking about the unlawful practice of wage theft and the consequences and troubles for those it affects. Wage theft takes many different forms: it can involve being paid “under the table”, employers denying access to legal meals and breaks, late paychecks or bounced paychecks, forced overtime, no overtime pay, the withholding of a worker’s tips, or any other action that defrauds a worker. Though there are federal and state laws in place, the enforcement of wage theft laws is left in the hands of the local governments here in California. Each locale deals with wage theft in a variety of ways, some with more success than others.
For instance, San Francisco currently was able to recover the owed minimum wages for 99% of the cases involving wage theft. However, things aren’t going quite so well in nearby San Jose, as well as across the rest of the United States. Even when companies or employers have been found in court to owe wages to their workers, the full amount frequently remains unpaid. Making the situation even more difficult is the pressure against workers if they think of reporting wage theft. Some fear losing their jobs if they speak up, others are threatened with deportation if they are immigrants, a few have been blacklisted in their industries, and many simply do not understand their rights or where to find help.
Those who are victims of wage theft suffer from depression, stress, anxiety, and hunger. An inordinate amount of victims are people of color and women. Wage theft is particularly rampant in service industries such as with restaurant and caregiver jobs, it’s present in construction jobs, and bad also in a number of other jobs. Undocumented workers are often taken advantage of, lured in with promises of money only to find that they will not be paid for their work followed by threats of deportation if they seek help. The average worker loses around %15 of their wages in a given year. There are also the matters of the employer avoiding paying necessary taxes, not providing correct tax forms for the workers to complete their own taxes, and undermining businesses who operate legitimately by lowering the buying power of consumers.
What these companies are doing is illegal. There is no doubt about that. The loss of wages negatively affects families, communities, law-abiding businesses, and government agencies. There are a few organizations, centers, and government agencies that can assist workers who have had their wages stolen. The list includes but is not limited to: PAWIS, ICAN, AACI, SIREN, MAIZ, the Day Worker Center, WorkSafe, Restaurant Opportunities Center, the NAACP, the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center and the Workplace Justice Initiative.
Wage theft is an issue that will only be resolved by everyone working together to penalize employers, advocate for workers, and established education surrounding workers’ rights and wage laws. If you would like more detailed information about, please refer to the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Report or stop by one of the organizations named above. Know your rights, get help, and don’t give up.