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Wage theft hits immigrants — hard

The Center for Public Integrity

Audelia Molina, a Mexican immigrant, was earning 10 cents for every garment she trimmed at a factory in Los Angeles, America’s clothing-assembly capital. Her wage was so meager that she started putting in 11-hour days to drive up production.

When she asked for a raise, a supervisor denied her request, so she quit in July 2017 — and turned to a labor-rights attorney to help her file an unpaid-wage complaint with the California Labor Commissioner.

A year later, the state found that Molina was paid, on average, $199 a week, violating overtime law and rules that piece-rate workers earn at least the state’s then $10.50 hourly minimum wage. But Molina’s employer didn’t pay her the almost $23,000 owed, not including attorney fees. Her best option was to apply to a state fund for cheated garment workers, a rare backstop California finances with business registration fees.

It took two more years before Molina received her check. Her former employer still hasn’t reimbursed the state fund, as required.

A 30-year resident of California, Molina got caught in a toxic cycle centuries old: Immigrants perform some of America’s lowest-paying, arduous jobs, and are among those most victimized by employers failing to pay them fairly.

Even if they have support to file a lawsuit or a claim — with a state labor agency, as Molina did, or the U.S. Department of Labor — they often settle for less to get money faster or must wait as cases drag on.

Just like U.S. citizens, any non-citizen whose job is covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act has the right to be paid overtime after 40 hours and the minimum hourly wage. But it’s not unusual for immigrant workers, documented or not, to face employer intimidation — which is illegal — when they assert their rights.

The U.S. Department of Labor, which operates in all states, doesn’t ask victims of suspected wage theft if they’re immigrants. The agency plainly acknowledges that complaints are reviewed regardless of workers’ immigration status.

But a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Labor Department and U.S. Census Bureau data found that industries with higher percentages of foreign-born workers had higher rates of wage theft.

Nationally, 16% of U.S. workers are foreign-born. By contrast, 42% of all workers performing cut-and-sew garment assembly are immigrants. That’s one of the highest percentages of immigrant workers in the nation. Public


Narro and other UCLA researchers have heard stories like these for years.

Multiple UCLA Labor Center reports have long warned of a “crisis” in wage theft that strips money from California’s immigrant families. A 2010 report estimated that low-wage, mostly immigrant workers in L.A. County lost an average of more than $2,000 annually, adding up to more than $26 million per week.

Reviews of claims for unpaid wages can take months, even years, state officials admit. The process includes conciliation attempts, hearings and appeals that can spill into courts. And then, in the end, some businesses just don’t pay up.

Employer failure to pay garment workers was such a festering problem 20 years ago that California legislators created the Garment Restitution Fund, financed by $75 diverted from each manufacturer’s annual registration fees. Employers are notified to reimburse the fund.

But workers’ claims ballooned as fly-by-night factories mushroomed in L.A., and began competing for contracts by promising cheap production. By 2018, the fund was insolvent. With hundreds waiting for checks, legislators in 2019 transferred $16.3 million into the fund from other kinds of business fees and general funds.


Immigrants can face even more limits to obtaining unpaid wages in other states.

In Houston, Texas, the Fe y Justicia (Faith and Justice) Worker Center helps immigrants who’ve been cheated by negotiating directly with their employers. The Houston metro region is estimated to be home to half a million undocumented residents who perform an array of labor, including construction, dry cleaning, landscaping and warehouse work. When workers press for unpaid earnings, some employers try to get them to back down, said Jessica Lorena Rangel, manager of the group’s Community Consultation Legal Center.

“Employers fill their minds with stuff, like telling them: ‘You can’t do anything about me, you have to suck it up because of your status. You’re not even supposed to be working. I’m doing you a favor,'” Rangel said.

In a year’s time, the group received over 540 calls accusing employers of failing to pay at least $1.36 million in wages. Some victims turn to small claims courts, Rangel said, but face similar burdens as in California to collect. The Texas Workforce Commission accepts claims. But many immigrants rotate among construction and other worksites, and are considered independent contractors excluded from filing with the commission.

In Florida, another heavily immigrant state, no state agency is wholly dedicated to investigating wage theft or reviewing claims. The state labor department was abolished in 2002. Alachua, Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Osceola counties have anti-wage-theft ordinances with distinct versions of complaint procedures. In Miami-Dade, workers are steered to a service that mediates disputes over, on average, about $1,800, according to

Gregory Baker, an administrator in the county’s Office of Consumer Protection, where the program is housed.

“We don’t advocate on either party’s behalf,” Baker said. If employers don’t honor an agreement, it also falls on workers to seek legal remedies to collect.

In New York, unpaid workers can avail themselves of a state system similar to California’s. But in the New York City metro area — home to possibly 1 million undocumented people — attorney Lou Pechman said that groups of workers are increasingly opting to file lawsuits in federal court.

Pechman is representing immigrant janitors who cleaned a Wayfair warehouse and distribution centers in New Jersey last year. Workers allege that their employer, New Jersey-based DME Janitorial Services, paid them between $12 and $16 an hour, with no overtime although they worked up to 90 hours a week. “Plaintiffs were essential workers during the pandemic, ensuring that the facilities that they cleaned were sanitized according to COVID-19 protocols and requirements,” the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey says. In a court filing, the company denies violating wage laws and, among other defenses, says it acted “in an appropriate, business-like … manner (without) malice or intent to injure.”

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