Another growing problem in these hard times:
Undocumented immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable because they are afraid to complain, advocates say. (In enforcing these cases, the U.S. Labor Department does not ask about immigration status.)
Cooks, dishwashers, waiters, landscapers, janitors, hotel maids, nannies, residential construction workers, and car-wash workers are among the employees most vulnerable, according to a 66-page study conducted jointly by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the National Employment Law Project in New York, and the Center for Urban Development in Chicago.
In Pennsylvania, the U.S. Labor Department has set up a separate initiative just to look at wage theft in hotels and motels.
A particular wrinkle that often shows up in residential construction is misclassifying individual trades people as independent contractors – each worker becomes his own boss, ineligible for overtime.
Technically, wage theft takes many forms – failure to pay minimum wage, failure to pay overtime after 10- to 12-hour days, failure to provide paid breaks, off-the-clock work at the beginning or end of a shift, and often, a simple refusal to pay a last check when the worker leaves.
“If you complained about the pay, you were likely to get fired,” said lawyer Nadia Hewka at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, an organization that represents low-income people and is representing the employees of Tommi’s Lifestyle Boutique.
A trend in employment toward outsourcing and subcontracting work makes it more difficult for employees and for government enforcement agencies such as the U.S. Labor Department to pin down who is actually responsible for making payroll.
Academics call this the “fissuring” of the workforce.
“Fissuring” is exactly what caused a wage problem for a 28-year-old South Philadelphia woman from Mexico and her coworkers at the Dave & Buster’s nightspot on Columbus Boulevard near Penn’s Landing.
Dave & Buster’s hired Majestic Cleaning, of North Bellmore, N.Y., in Nassau County, for janitorial work. But workers received checks from a subcontractor, “Victor Valencia DBA The Faraon General Maintainace Servi,” misspelled just that way.
Majestic had subcontracted with the Faraon company to clean the Dave & Buster’s in Philadelphia.
Like her coworkers, the woman worked 60 to 65 hours a week for seven days a week, cleaning from midnight to between 9 and 11 a.m. each day. She was paid $750 every two weeks from February until November 2010, she said.
Even without overtime, that comes to between $5.77 and $6.25 an hour, well below Pennsylvania’s $7.25 hourly minimum wage.
The U.S. Labor Department intervened and was able to get her about $4,000 in back wages, which did not represent all that the woman was owed and did not include any penalties, Hewka said.