How firms rip off poor workers — and get away with it

Already battered by lengthy shifts and excessive an infection charges, important employees struggling via the pandemic face one other hazard of onerous instances: employers who steal their wages.

When a recession hits, U.S. firms usually tend to stiff their lowest-wage employees. These companies usually pay lower than the minimal wage, make workers work off the clock, or refuse to pay extra time charges. In essentially the most egregious instances, bosses don’t pay their workers in any respect.

Corporations that rent baby care employees, fuel station clerks, restaurant servers and safety guards are among the many companies almost definitely to get caught dishonest their workers, in line with a Heart for Public Integrity evaluation of minimal wage and extra time violations from the U.S. Division of Labor. In 2019 alone, the company cited about 8,500 employers for taking about $287 million from employees.

Main U.S. firms are among the worst offenders. They embody Halliburton, G4S Wackenhut and Circle-Ok shops, which company data present have collectively taken greater than $22 million from their workers since 2005.

Their victims toil on the decrease rungs of the workforce. Folks like Danielle Wynne, a $10-an-hour comfort retailer clerk in Florida who stated her boss ordered her to work off the clock, and Ruth Palacios, a janitor from Mexico who earned lower than the minimal wage to disinfect a New York Metropolis hospital on the top of the pandemic.

Corporations have little incentive to observe the regulation. The Labor Division’s Wage and Hour Division, which investigates federal wage-theft complaints, not often penalizes repeat offenders, in line with a assessment of information from the division. Public Integrity obtained the data via a Freedom of Info Act request masking October 2005 to September 2020.

The company fined solely about 1 in 4 repeat offenders throughout that interval. And it ordered these firms to pay employees money damages — penalty cash along with again wages — in simply 14% of these instances.

On prime of that, the division usually lets companies keep away from repaying their workers all the cash they’re owed. In all, the company has let greater than 16,000 employers get away with not paying $20.3 million in again wages since 2005, in line with Public Integrity’s evaluation.

“Some firms are doing a cost-benefit evaluation and notice it’s cheaper to violate the regulation, even in the event you get caught,” stated Jenn Spherical, a labor requirements enforcement fellow on the Heart for Innovation in Employee Group at Rutgers College.

The federal knowledge gives a revealing — although incomplete — have a look at a apply that pushes America’s lowest-paid employees additional into poverty. The information doesn’t embody violations of state wage-theft legal guidelines or instances the place workers sued. And it misses all the employees who don’t file complaints, both as a result of they’re afraid to or are unaware of their rights.

However some economists say wage theft is so pervasive that it’s costing employees at the least $15 billion a yr — excess of the quantity stolen in robberies.

Corporations are extra susceptible to dishonest workers of shade and immigrant employees, in line with Daniel Galvin, a political science professor and coverage researcher at Northwestern College. His analysis, primarily based on knowledge from the Census Bureau’s Present Inhabitants Survey, reveals that immigrants and Latino employees had been twice as prone to earn lower than the minimal wage from 2009 to 2019 in contrast with white People. Black employees had been practically 50% extra prone to get ripped off as compared.

Via a lot of the Jim Crow period, the federal authorities ignored racial disparities in pay. It wasn’t till the Nice Melancholy that Congress first tried to ascertain a nationwide minimal wage and extra time pay for employees. To get Southern Democrats to vote for the Honest Labor Requirements Act of 1938, Northern Democrats agreed to exclude agricultural laborers, nannies and housekeepers from the regulation’s protections. Within the South, most of these employees had been Black. Out west, a big quantity had been Mexican American.

Congress amended the act throughout the Sixties and Nineteen Seventies to cowl most of those excluded employees, however their employers usually flout the regulation anyway. Galvin stories in his forthcoming e book, “Alt-Labor and the New Politics of Employees’ Rights,” that the lowest-paid employees misplaced roughly $1.67 per hour — about 21% of their earnings — to wage theft from 2009 to 2019.

Yuri Callejas, a 40-year-old single mom, cleaned resort rooms at a Fairfield Inn & Suites franchise in Pelham, Alabama. Callejas complained to her boss that he was paying her solely $9 an hour when she was employed at $10 an hour, in line with a lawsuit filed in January 2020 in federal courtroom. Although she stated she was working greater than 40 hours per week, she wasn’t getting paid extra time, both, in line with the criticism.

Her boss refused to alter her pay fee, the criticism stated, so she stop. Her accounting of how a lot she was owed: $1,272.

With assist from an lawyer at Adelante Alabama Employee Heart, Callejas sued the proprietor of the resort, AUM Pelham LLC. The corporate denied that Callejas was employed at $10 an hour or that she labored extra time, nevertheless it agreed to a settlement. Firm proprietor Rakesh Patel didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Callejas walked away with $2,500 in again wages and damages. However that didn’t wipe away the recollections of her wrestle.

“Each time I paid my payments,” she recalled, “I by no means had sufficient cash.”

Isaac Guazo, an financial justice organizer for Adelante Alabama, stated fewer employees have reported wage theft throughout the pandemic, however that doesn’t imply it’s taking place much less.

“It’s the other, truly,” he stated. “Employees will tolerate much more abuse proper now as a result of it’s so onerous to seek out one other job and they should pay hire.”

Ruth Palacios and Arturo Xelo, a married couple from Mexico, disinfected COVID-19 affected person rooms on the Memorial Sloan Kettering Most cancers Heart in New York Metropolis. They labored seven days per week for months, Palacios stated, however weren’t paid extra time. At first of the pandemic, they earned the native minimal wage of $15 an hour, she stated, however after a number of months, their boss lowered their pay to $12.25, she stated.

“The little guys have to talk up as a result of individuals — the bosses — are making the most of their employees,” Palacios stated in a video name from her residence in Queens.

Palacios, Xelo and two of their former co-workers filed a federal lawsuit in opposition to the contractor that employed them, BMS Cat, in January. The corporate didn’t reply to requests for remark. In courtroom data, it denied that it paid the cleaners lower than the minimal wage or that it owed them extra time pay. The hospital didn’t reply to requests for remark, both.


Danielle Wynne rang up prospects at a Circle-Ok fuel station in Brevard County, Florida, throughout shifts that began at 4:30 a.m. and ended within the early afternoon. Earlier than and after clocking in, Wynne stated, her supervisor made her work free of charge, in line with a lawsuit she filed in federal courtroom in February 2020. She counted money within the register, brewed espresso, cleaned the shop, set out condiments and refilled the lottery machine — all whereas off the clock.

The unpaid work added as much as about $1,250 in a single yr, in line with the courtroom submitting. For somebody incomes $10 an hour, that’s about three weeks of pay.

Wynne stated in courtroom data that she didn’t complain on the time as a result of she was afraid of her “vindictive” boss.

Circle-Ok Shops denied the underpayment allegations in courtroom filings, although it ended up settling the case for $2,500 in October. However knowledge from the Labor Division reveals that the corporate repeatedly takes wages from its workers, with few repercussions.

Federal investigators caught Circle-Ok shops underpaying workers 22 instances since 2005, most lately in February 2020. The whole: $54,069 taken from 120 workers. However the Labor Division solely fined the corporate 4 instances and ordered it to pay damages to workers in two instances. In six instances, the corporate didn’t pay all the cash it owed workers, often known as again wages. The company closed these instances anyway with out additional motion.

Circle-Ok Shops didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark.

Public Integrity discovered that Labor Division investigators are simply as lenient with different repeat offenders.

The oilfield providers firm Halliburton illegally withheld $18.7 million from 1,050 workers, Labor Division data present, however employees investigators by no means ordered the corporate to pay money damages on prime of the again wages. The division fined Halliburton in solely three of eight instances it introduced in opposition to the corporate.

Halliburton declined to touch upon the instances. However in a 2015 assertion to Inside Vitality, a spokesperson for the corporate stated it had misclassified workers as exempt from extra time pay.

“The corporate re-classified the recognized positions, and all through this course of, Halliburton has labored earnestly and cooperatively with the U.S. Division of Labor to equitably resolve this case,” wrote Susie McMichael, a public relations consultant for Halliburton.

G4S Wackenhut and its subsidiaries, which give safety providers to firms and courthouses, illegally denied practically $3.3 million to 1,605 workers. Federal investigators by no means ordered the corporate to pay damages to workers and solely issued a nice in 9 of 47 instances, totaling lower than $41,000. Although G4S Wackenhut later repaid workers in practically all of the instances, it didn’t pay full again wages on two events, and the Labor Division closed these instances anyway.

Sabrina Rios, a spokeswoman for the corporate, stated many of the cash owed concerned G4S subsidiaries that had been underneath impartial administration. She added that the claims don’t replicate the corporate’s enterprise practices and that among the instances date again greater than 22 years.

“The corporate labored with the DOL so as to examine every case and made acceptable funds to the people totaling about $3.3 (million),” she wrote.

A Labor Division official stated the company orders firms to pay damages when acceptable, decided on a case-by-case foundation. Fines are often assessed when an organization repeatedly, or willfully, breaks the regulation. The division tries to resolve instances administratively to keep away from taking employers to courtroom.

“The division workout routines its prosecutorial discretion in figuring out whether or not to litigate particular instances, primarily based upon cautious consideration of our priorities, assets, and mission,” Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator for the company’s Wage and Hour Division, wrote in an announcement.

Nancy Leppink, former head of the Wage and Hour Division throughout the Obama administration, stated the company doesn’t have sufficient attorneys to take each employer to courtroom once they don’t pay up. Though the division employed 300 new investigators throughout her tenure, it had solely about 787 to implement wage theft legal guidelines as of February.

That’s about one investigator per 182,000 workers coated by the Honest Labor Requirements Act, far beneath the one investigator per 10,000 employees really helpful by the United Nations’ Worldwide Labour Group.

Leppink, now commissioner of the Minnesota Division of Labor and Trade, stated she pushed investigators to demand money damages for employees in each doable federal case. For instance, if an employer took $1,000 from an worker, the company might demand that quantity in again wages and an additional $1,000 in damages.

“If all you do is accumulate wages, why would an organization hassle complying till (an investigator) walks via the door?” she stated.

Whereas the share of instances with damages jumped throughout Leppink’s tenure, it has by no means surpassed 15%, the information reveals. The company’s choice about whether or not to pursue damages typically is dictated by the energy of the proof, the urgency in getting employees their again wages, and the extent of noncompliance by the employer, Leppink stated — and typically just by a scarcity of employees assets.

Final yr, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration ordered federal investigators to cease in search of damages generally for employees. In April, the Biden administration reversed that call, Looman stated.

Legal professionals who symbolize employees in wage theft instances say they usually discourage shoppers from submitting a criticism with the Labor Division as a result of they not often receives a commission damages or see fast outcomes. The standard case took 108 days to analyze, in line with the company’s knowledge.


At a 2015 listening to in Philadelphia, a regulation professor from Temple College advised the Metropolis Council that employers stole wages from tens of 1000’s of Philadelphia employees each week. The professor, Jennifer Lee, was pointing to findings from a research by the college’s Sheller Heart for Social Justice.

“This tells us that wage theft is not any accident,” Lee advised metropolis lawmakers. “It’s not a number of dangerous apple employers or a number of new companies that don’t perceive the regulation, however somewhat a calculated strategy by employers to maximise their income on the backs of their employees.”

The listening to helped launch an area wage-theft regulation that permits employees to get their a refund extra shortly than they’d by submitting a criticism with the state or federal authorities.

The ordinance, which went into impact in 2016, units a 110-day restrict for metropolis employees to analyze and shut a wage theft case. It additionally offers employees three years to file a criticism with town, in contrast with the two-year statute of limitations underneath federal regulation. And the penalties are steep. The town can revoke or deny native permits and licenses to firms that steal wages.

Authorized specialists and group teams level to sturdy native wage theft legal guidelines as an efficient solution to get round lax enforcement on the federal stage and in some states. Chicago handed such a regulation in 2013. Minneapolis adopted in 2019.

However different employees’ rights advocates wish to see federal reforms, contemplating that the Labor Division protects the most important variety of employees. They need Congress to spice up funding to the Wage and Hour Division so it might probably double the variety of investigators, rent extra attorneys and tackle further wage theft instances. Additionally they need lawmakers to increase the federal statute of limitations past two years.

Leppink, the Minnesota labor commissioner, stated the federal authorities might revoke franchise licenses and federal contracts from firms with a historical past of wage theft.

On the very least, the Wage and Hour Division can order employers to pay damages in each doable case, stated Jennifer Marion, a former coverage adviser with the division.

“If you already know you might be prone to pay double than what you owed,” she stated, “that adjustments every part.”


This story is a collaboration between The Related Press and The Heart for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Washington.

Alexia Fernández Campbell is a senior reporter at Public Integrity. She may be reached at [email protected] Comply with her on Twitter at @AlexiaCampbell. Joe Yerardi is a knowledge reporter at Public Integrity. He may be reached at [email protected] Comply with him on Twitter at @JoeYerardi.


Acquired a tip for AP? Contact AP’s international investigative workforce at [email protected]

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