"It doesn't add up" - Ten North Carolina Workers Share Experiences of Wage Theft

September 2012

A qualitative report from the NC Justice Center's Workers' Rights Project and the UNC Immigration/Human Rights Clinic

I’ve read about it before in the newspaper, but never in [my] life did I think it would happen to me. … Now what? How do [I] go forward? – Freddy

Read about Freddy, a North Carolina farmworker who often was not paid minimum wage and didn't receive his final paycheck.

This qualitative inquiry (get the full report here) into wage theft is designed as a first look at the impacts of wage theft on North Carolina workers, the conditions that make workers vulnerable to the severe consequences of wage theft, and the options—or lack of options—available to workers for redress.[i]

Wage theft, or an employer’s underpayment or nonpayment of wages to workers who have earned those wages, is a growing epidemic. Recent studies and surveys confirm staggering rates of wage and hour violations—such as minimum-wage and overtime violations, the shorting of hours, and the refusal to pay workers at all—in low-wage industries across the country.[ii] Get more information about wage theft here.

When we do our own counting, well I may have not studied much or know math, but I know how to add the numbers, and when we do our own calculations, it doesn’t add up to what she said. It’s always less. - Natalia

Read about Natalia, a housecleaner whose employer manipulated her hours and illegally deducted money for gas from her paycheck.

This report offers insight into these questions through 10 workers’ experiences. While each worker’s story is unique, the following common themes emerged and are instructive for moving policy forward:[iii]

>> Wage theft creates economic uncertainty, and even small wage violations have significant financial consequences. While the dollar amounts stolen from participants might be considered relatively small, these amounts undermined participants’ financial stability, pushing some deeper into debt or even into homelessness. Most participants described how they meticulously budgeted their limited resources, and when employers failed to pay promised wages, the inability to plan ahead caused stress and uncertainty. For some participants who experienced multiple wage-theft violations, living with uncertainty became the norm.

Esther ended up living in a shelter when the family for whom she provided home health services refused to pay her for an entire month's work.

Read how fighting for the money she was owed in small claims court "drained the little money [she] had saved."

>> Serious barriers to redress exist, including the threat of retaliation, financial obstacles, and a lack of information about options. Not one of the ten participants had been able to recoup their lost wages at the time of the interview. By far, the greatest obstacle to redress was the threat of employer retaliation, especially in the cases of undocumented workers. Other barriers included the inability to pay court filing fees, a lack of information about legal and administrative options for redress, and little faith that anything could be done.

I went to put in the complaint and first you had to give $80 to do the fine and then another 30 for who knows what or something like that. So it was like $110. And so, if one doesn’t have any money— they didn’t pay you—one doesn’t have any money, one can’t do that. - Carlos

Read about Carlos, who worked in construction and received only partial payments for his work, was denied his final paycheck, and was forced to work overtime without getting overtime wages.

>> Low-wage work increases worker vulnerability and the severity of consequences when wage violations occur. While the Triangle region of North Carolina is often known for its technology boom and steady economic rise, participants in this study did not reap the rewards of the area’s recent job and wage growth. For all participants, their work, which combined low wages with often sporadic or unpredictable hours, created unstable financial realities. Some participants were already living paycheck to paycheck and barely able to meet basic needs before wage violations occurred. Moreover, for some workers, the lack of available job opportunities in the current economic downturn affected their ability to leave jobs with poor conditions.

When you only have a little bit of money to work with, it’s just hard to pay some bills when, you know, you really need to pay it. There’s the light bill, water bill, gas. There’s gas for the vehicle. It’s just so much going on. … We only have this little bit of money to work with. - Karen

Read how missing out on her last paycheck when her employer unexpectedly affected Karen: "I'll be 61 in May, and this is the worst I have ever seen myself in a predicament like this."


Next Page --> What Can Be Done about Wage Theft in North Carolina?


[i] Another, more comprehensive report on wage theft in North Carolina will be released in Spring 2012. The insights provided by the workers interviewed for this study informed the methodology for the larger report, which will include more in-depth quantitative assessments and policy recommendations.

[ii] For a summary of research on wage and hour violations in the United States, see National Employment Law Project, 2012. “Summary of Research on Wage and Hour Violations in the United States,” available at www.nelp.org.

[iii] See the methodology section for more details on how participants were chosen.


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