By Alyson Kay
LANGLEY PARK, Maryland — Victor came to the U.S. 15 years ago looking for steady work. In many ways, the U.S. has met his expectations and he gets hired most days to do day labor for construction companies or commercial contractors. But one thing he may not have expected is that some employers wouldn’t pay him what they promised.
Victor, an immigrant from Guatemala, says he’s cheated on as many as 20 percent of the jobs he takes. “Sometimes it looks like a big contractor and then at the end of the day, they say, ‘I’ll call you in a week,” to set up a payment arrangement. Frequently, he says, the call never comes. (Capital News Service is withholding Victor’s last name to protect him from possible retaliatory actions by employers.)
Wage theft is a big and growing problem in the U.S. and affects a wide variety of mostly low-wage workers. It’s an especially big issue in immigrant communities, where workers are often hired off the books and are vulnerable due to their legal status and limited proficiency in English.
In fact, attorneys who work with immigrants say that wage theft is one of the most common reasons why Latin American and other non-native workers seek legal services.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that day laborers are ripped off of millions of dollars of wages each year throughout the United States,” says Steve Smitson, an immigration attorney in Ellicott City at Smitson Law LLC. “Day laborers are the most vulnerable workers because often they’re least equipped to defend their rights and they’re seen as easy targets for unscrupulous employers.”
As cities and states across the U.S. move to increase the minimum wage, the number of employers violating the rules grows. According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers in the U.S. lose between $8.6 billion and $13.8 billion a year because they are paid below their state’s minimum wage. That estimate– which includes all workers, native-born and immigrants–was extrapolated based on a study prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor of minimum wage violations in 2011 in New York and California, two states with relatively high minimum wage requirements. The study also found that non-citizens were 1.6 to 3.1 times more likely to be affected by minimum wage violations, according to the EPI.
Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said the numbers in the Labor Department study likely understate wage theft because they only included incidents that were reported and many immigrant workers don’t report their grievances to the government. The data may also exclude incidents when workers aren’t paid at all or what was promised, even if the amount was above minimum wage.
“If you are feeling vulnerable about getting or keeping a job, you will tend not to complain even when you know your employer is breaking the law,” said Bobo, the author of the 2011 book, “Wage Theft in America.” Without complaints, she said, “most enforcement agencies don’t investigate and wage theft continues.”
It’s not just businesses doing the cheating. CASA de Maryland, the largest Latino and immigrant advocacy organization in the Washington area, says homeowners who hire workers for landscaping and furniture moving jobs sometimes short-change workers, too. CASA legal services once spent two months trying to force a local homeowner to pay $60 to two workers who spent several hours laying mulch on her property. The homeowner promised to pay each worker $60, but after the work was completed, she paid the men half the agreed upon amount. After CASA threatened legal action, the homeowner finally paid up.
Economists say that wage theft drives poor families deeper into poverty, prompting them to apply for federal subsidies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and free school breakfast and lunch for children. That hurts taxpayers to the benefit of employers that skirt the laws.
Maryland is especially ripe for such abuses, says attorney Smitson, due to the large amount of construction taking place in the state. While wage theft occurs in many industries, construction contractors and subcontractors in particular use day laborers frequently and have more complaints against them.
Victor says employers find lots of ways to cheat. In December 2016, he was hired for a framing job that lasted three days. The employer agreed to pay him $300 for the work. At the end of the three days, the employer paid Victor with a check. But when he tried to cash the check, the bank said it wasn’t negotiable. “When I go back and catch him to get my money, he said, ‘No! I don’t got money right now,’” said Victor. He didn’t want to cause problems or bring attention to himself, and gave up trying to collect.
Attorneys at the Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County say such stories have become common. Valerie Adeyeye, a worker’s rights lawyer at the center, says wage theft cases are the most frequent that the center sees.
When a client comes to the worker’s rights clinic, Ms. Adeyeye contacts the employer and tries to arrange a settlement. “We can write demand letters on their behalf,” said Adeyeye. “We can help them file a complaint.” Rarely do the cases go to court.
She also helps workers file complaints with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation or the D.C Office of Employment.
While stricter enforcement by the government could reduce minimum wage violations for most American workers, there is little that can be done to help undocumented immigrants. Bobo said while there is a need for more enforcement, employer groups and trade associations can play a part in the solution by setting higher standards for their business members. Consumers can also help, especially when people buy a contracted service.
“The consuming public needs to ask questions,” Bobo said. “When we hire somebody we need to ask ‘Are you paying your workers fairly? Do you pay them as employees? Do you pay them as independent contractors?’ There are things that as consumers both as individual consumers, but if we’re purchasing contracted services to our companies or to our congregations, we can be ethical consumers as well and ask questions.”