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For five months, Mario de la Cruz went to work on a D.C. construction site where he made $15 an hour laying tile, installing floors and putting up siding. Then, without notice, his employer stopped paying him. Still, the Guatemalan immigrant, continued working.
“Since they had gone so long paying me correctly, I said, 'OK, I’ll keep working because this person is probably a good boss,'” de la Cruz said through an interpreter.
But after a month, de la Cruz still hadn’t received a paycheck. With overtime, his boss owed him almost $5,000. De la Cruz approached the supervisor, who gave him the runaround. That’s when he decided to go over his boss’s head.
“So I went to the head of the company and I said, ‘What’s going on? I need my money,’” he said.
A year later, de la Cruz is still waiting for an answer.
The kind of thievery that Mario de la Cruz experienced is common in fields like construction and hospitality, where many low-wage workers don’t have employment contracts or access to human-resources departments. Two out of every three low-wage workers are likely to experience some form of wage theft, says Ari Weisbard, the deputy director of the District’s Employment Justice Center.
“Wage theft is any time a worker doesn’t get paid what he’s supposed to. So sometimes that means they’re getting paid less than they were initially promised,” Weisbard said. “Sometimes it means they’re not getting paid the minimum wage. Or they’re not getting paid for overtime the way the law requires. And sometimes it means they’re not getting paid at all.”
Annually, low wage workers lose an average of about 15 percent of their income to wage theft, Weisbard says.
Weisbard’s organization and others around the District have been lobbying the D.C. Council to pass legislation that would help victims of wage theft have their day in court. And, ideally, get the money they’ve earned.
In February, Council members Mary Cheh, Jim Graham and Vincent Orange introduced the Wage Theft Prevention Act. It would overhaul wage and hour enforcement in the District by increasing penalties for unscrupulous employers and creating formal hearings for workers.
“[Workers] would have the right to go in front of this administrative law judge and present their case and argue this is how much I was offered, this is how many hours I worked, but I was only paid this amount,” Weisbard said. “And the employer would have an obligation to actually show up. Right now they can ignore the Office of Wage Hour and basically delay a case indefinitely.”
Last year, the Office of the Attorney General fielded complaints from 45 workers who claimed to be victims of wage theft. Their claims totaled almost $130,000 in lost wages. And those are only the people who spoke up.
Nikki Lewis has worked all types of restaurant jobs, from server to bartender to manager. Along the way, she’s seen countless instances of wage theft, starting with her own when she was a trainee server.
“Typically, when you’re training when you’re not actually receiving tips, you are entitled to be paid the full minimum wage,” Lewis said. “After training for two weeks though not receiving any tips, I got my paycheck and it was for $34 and I was like, WHAT? Because I was really depending on a substantial check.”
Lewis confronted her supervisor who told her she had actually signed a document when she was hired acknowledging that the restaurant would only pay her the tipped worker minimum wage, even though she would not be earning any supplementary tips.
“In the fine print it said we’re only going to pay you $2.33 an hour. So that’s illegal. I at least should have been paid the minimum wage,” she said.
Lewis left the restaurant industry a few years ago and is now the executive director of D.C. Jobs With Justice, a worker’s rights organization. She recently spoke at a D.C. Council hearing on the Wage Theft Prevention Act.
One of the people to testify was Mario de la Cruz. Through an interpreter, he told the panel about his experience with wage theft and why he was speaking out.
“If I don’t do anything, I know that these companies will keep taking advantage of people in our community,” he said.
Music: "Pay Attention" by Bexar Bexar from Haralambos