Electricians Claudia Golinelli and her husband Alex, an undocumented couple from El Salvador, worked on the construction of an Aldi supermarket in Roanoke, Texas in 2014.
Their employer refused to pay them for three months until the work was finished, leaving them with around $11,000 in unpaid wages.
Shadowproof withheld the identity of the employer to protect the workers from being sued and because they are still waiting to be paid.
“On February 26, 2014, he called and said he was going to pay my husband and I everything we were owed,” Claudia Golinelli shared. The couple agreed to meet the employer at the supermarket, since they missed three mortgage payments and were at risk of losing their home.
Instead of meeting, the employer called the police and accused the couple of stealing supplies from the supermarket to avoid paying the wages.
“They didn’t consider I have two children and an elderly mother to take care of, and he wanted us to go to jail,” Golinelli added.
Three witnesses at the scene were able to testify to police the couple was not stealing, and neither the couple nor the employer were charged with any crimes. But years later, Golinelli said they are still owed around $10,000 in unpaid wages from the incident and Golinelli claimed the employer has continued to take advantage of undocumented contracted workers.
The employer “reported to the IRS we were paid the full wages,” according to Golinelli.
Since the incident, she began having issues with immigration. With help from advocacy organizations like the Workers Defense Project in Texas, the Golinellis were able to alleviate pressure from immigration services and win a ruling from the Department of Labor to be paid $1,100 of the unpaid wages they were owed.
A 2016 analysis of wage theft, focusing on policy deterrents to minimum wage violations, conducted by Daniel Gavin, a Northwestern University associate professor of political science noted individuals are more likely to be victims of wage theft if they are women, non-white, less educated, working in an urban center, non-citizens, or non-union members.
Gavin highlighted that states that enacted anti-wage theft laws with treble damage penalties—financial penalties that triple the amount of compensatory damages—saw significant declines in wage theft incident rates.
“States that enacted treble damages saw a statistically significant decline in predictive probability of workers experiencing minimum wage violations,” Gavin concluded. “One test case was in Ohio. They passed treble damages in 2006, then the governor, Ted Strickland, waived penalties a year later for first time offenders. In that year, wage theft incidences dropped significantly, but after the executive order, the incidence rate returned to previous levels.”
According to Gavin, state labor agencies with stronger investigative capacities and proactive enforcement of high incidence industries had lower wage theft incidence rates compared to states with weaker labor enforcement capacities.
More than $50 billion is estimated to be stolen annually from workers in the form of wage theft in the United States, and just a fraction of those wages are recouped for workers by federal and state labor enforcement agencies.
This theft includes employers paying workers less than minimum wage, unpaid overtime, deducted hours worked from paychecks, and unpaid work hours for training and security purposes.
A June 2019 report conducted by the National Employment Law Project called attention to the need for protection laws for workers from employer retaliation at state and federal levels. The report noted only six states and the District of Columbia have laws in place, which provide basic retaliation protection for employers.
“Workers risk everything when they come forward to report or challenge employer violations, so our retaliation laws have to account for that risk,” said attorney Laura Huizar, who authored the report. “What we found is, at least when it comes to wage theft, our laws do not generally provide a strong protection that workers need.”
Even in those states with wage theft retaliation protection laws, the widespread issue of wage theft and retaliation against workers persisted.
Make the Road New York and the Center for Popular Democracy compiled a report in April 2019 that estimated wage theft impacts around 2.1 million workers in New York every year, totaling more than $3.3 billion in stolen wages.
The report called attention to the New York Department of Labor’s inadequate resources to handle growing caseloads and collect stolen wages from employers, as well as delayed investigations, as contributing factors to the shortfalls of wage theft enforcement in New York.
For nearly 12 years, Jose Alberto Rios Lopez and his brother Jesus worked for Graziella’s Italian Bistro in a suburb of New York City. In December 2018, they filed a class-action lawsuit with Make the Road New York and the law firm Klafter, Olsen & Lesser against the restaurant owners for rampant wage theft throughout their employment.
“When we worked, we would often work a 12-hour workday, 60 to 70 hours a week. When the pay came, it was a surprise to see the pay wasn’t more than 39 hours a week for our work,” recalled Rios Lopez.
Throughout his employment, Rios Lopez noted workers’ concerns about unpaid wages were dismissed with false promises or a few dollars in an envelope. “This happened every week, every month, every year, they kept making false promises they would pay us.”
Despite being paid the tipped minimum wage as a busser, Rios Lopez was often directed to complete duties outside of his job scope, including valet parking, landscaping, cleaning, and maintenance around the restaurant.
The lawsuit cited previous cases, where the owners settled wage theft allegations with workers at other restaurants they own and operate in the area. It also claimed the restaurant threatened to fire workers for inquiring about unpaid wages and failed to provide breaks and meals that were deducted from employee pay.
Graziella’s Italian Bistro did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. The lawsuit against the bistro is still pending.