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Tuesday, 14 April 2015 08:31

Workers in California Awarded Stolen Wages, but Will They Ever Receive Them?

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aendwagethef1t(Photo: torbakhopper)

The Union City Patch (in the East Bay Area north of San Jose) recently reported that a case of wage theft has been decided on behalf of workers. Among evidence of employer exploitation of nursing home and residential care employees was proof that some of them had been paid as little as $5 per hour.

As the local Patch reported:

Officials with the U.S. Department of Labor have recovered more than $6.8 million in wages for more than 1,300 Bay Area workers who weren’t paid according to labor laws between 2011 and 2014, labor department officials said...

Wage and Hour Division officials investigated hundreds of individual care homes and a majority was in violation of labor laws....

Among the violations officials found were the failure to pay workers for overnight work. Non-monetary violations included failing to provide adequate sleeping accommodations. Some workers had to sleep on the floor. Some workers worked 10 to 14 hours a day and were paid for only eight hours. Other employers paid workers a weekly salary regardless of the hours a person worked and consequently these employers denied workers overtime pay. 

Some employers intimidated or retaliated against their employees or told them not to cooperate with Wage and Hour Division investigators.

It is highly likely, based on anecdotal reports from advocates for low-wage and undocumented workers across the nation – and occasional government investigations - that the wage theft and squalid working conditions found in the Bay Area are not an isolated incident. This is just one example of the many ways in which the economic gap in the United States is widening. After all, if workers are receiving only a few dollars an hour in pay, the difference between their pittance in wages and what they should be receiving goes to the owners of the businesses. The owners become richer and the workers poorer.

Make no mistake about it, what the US Department of Labor found in the East Bay area is the same as stealing. If a person mugs someone for $100, they are considered "criminals" by the police, justice and incarceration system in the US. Ongoing theft of funds from vulnerable workers, however, is the way that plutocrats go about doing their mugging – and there is little in the way of government intervention to discourage them from doing so. 

February 19 article in The New York Times, however, points out that even when wage theft is officially found and back wages and fines are assessed, collecting the money by those workers in economic need can be an insurmountable challenge. As The Times reported:

After due consideration of records and testimony, the State of New York found that Marco Lino, who chopped vegetables and mopped floors and hoisted crates six days a week in a Bayside, Queens, greenmarket, was owed $51,025.20 in unpaid wages. For Gregoria Geronomina Jimenez and 34 other workers at three restaurants in Upper Manhattan run by the same owners, the Industrial Board of Appeals ruled that $385,364.34 in earnings had not been paid over four years. Jin Ming Cao, a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, was underpaid by $142,812.05, part of $1.8 million that a federal judge decided was due to 26 employees of that restaurant and two others run by the same people.

No one has collected...

Mr. Lino, like Ms. Jimenez, Mr. Cao and their several dozen co-workers, has not collected anything close to the money that various agencies, boards and courts have found was due him. State and federal laws intended to protect people from being cheated out of their earnings often yield only pieces of paper declaring what they are owed, not actual cash. 

The enforcement agencies that are supposed to ensure restitution to the underpaid and exploited workers do not necessarily ensure payments of the judgments on their behalf. The New York Times noted that Mr. Lino, owed more than $50,000 in stolen wages, hasn't received the money due him. Instead he received this response from the New York State Labor Department: “After considerable efforts to obtain restitution for you in the above matter, we find that we can take no further action for you at this time."

If you are a poor person desperate for money and steal a few dollars, you might end up in the unjust mass-incarceration system. If you are an employer who gets wealthier by stealing the wages that workers are due, you are apparently able to game the system and just hold on to the money.

At least, that's what happened in New York City. As a worker owed nearly $143,000 in salary told the New York Times: “The bosses really didn’t care about the lawsuit,” Mr. Cao said. “You can win the case, but everybody is holding an empty judgment.”

Once again, the scales of justice are heavily weighted in favor of the well-off.

Not to be reposted without permission of Truthout.