Wage Theft - Economic uncertainty becomes an expectation

The first few times, it feels bad. … After, one has become accustomed. - Carlos

Eight of the ten participants had experienced at least two forms of labor-law violations as minimum-wage violations, overtime violations, and underpayment or non-payment of wages, and some interviewees had experienced as many as five in the last two years. For some participants, especially those who were undocumented workers, every recent job had included some form of wage theft.

Some participants who experienced wage theft over and over came to expect these violations, making the uncertainty of getting paid a part of their reality. Carlos and Diego were day laborers who had multiple jobs over the last two years, and both men described multiple violations at each job.

Diego, who worked in landscaping, spoke about times his employers denied him overtime pay, underpaid him, and made illegal deductions from his paycheck. Carlos, who worked in construction, received only partial payment for his work, was denied his final paycheck at one job, and at another was forced to work overtime—“I would work until 7 or 8 at night”—but was not paid overtime wages.

Carlos talked about the delicate balance he established in paying for food, transportation, and rent. The expectation of his promised wage used to provide him with the security to spend a little more on food or transportation toward the beginning of the month.

… [I thought] it’s not a problem because [the employer] is going to pay me on this day. On Friday, for example, he’s going to pay me on Friday so I’ll spend it today or I’ll send more money to Mexico. One starts spending it.

Over the last few years, however, Carlos had been taught over and over again that his promised pay would likely not arrive.

So that day comes when you get paid and you confront the employer and say, “Where’s my money?” and you’ll never see him. One never sees him. That’s when you feel very bad.

Diego was upset when he spoke about paychecks that never arrived. “Because we earn so little, we already make—that is, when we count together the hours, we believe we are going to earn a certain amount.”

For Roger, who worked in restaurants, missing wages meant making late payments toward his bills. “There was $15 missing here, $20 missing here. All the time. Like once a week, really.” That missing money meant late fees on cable bills and car payments and the inability to count on his paycheck.

You can’t buy anything for yourself because you’re not sure if the next paycheck’s going to go in. So I can’t do this because I don’t know if I’ll get paid Monday, and I’m almost out as it is because I got paid late last week and I had to pay all my bills at one time, so now I’m back down to zero. And I can’t do anything because I don’t know what’s going to happen next time paychecks come around. Am I going to have anything then?