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Stiffing Working Stiffs

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Antonio Sanchez says he worked long hours for Enrique Hernandez in June 2009.  Sanchez had been standing on the corner of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. and Lloyd boulevards, hoping for a day laborer’s job, when a man drove up and said his boss needed help. The driver took Sanchez to a site where Hernandez’s company, Henry’s Quality Underlayment, was ripping out carpet and putting down vinyl flooring.  Sanchez says Hernandez agreed to pay him $10 an hour, and that he worked long days—without lunch breaks—for four weeks at houses in Portland and Clatskanie. He says he was never paid $1,700 Hernandez owed him.  Hernandez claimed Sanchez never worked for him. It was the driver who brought Sanchez to the site, he said, who had hired Sanchez. He didn’t owe Sanchez a dime.  “That’s when I decided to sue,” Sanchez says.  Sanchez says he was the victim of wage theft—when employers cheat their workers out of their pay. It’s a particularly big problem for immigrants and workers who take short-term jobs and often move from one employer to the next.

Wage theft can take many forms, from minimum-wage violations to cases like Sanchez’s, in which workers are promised money from employers who never deliver. A 2009 study by the National Employment Law Project, focusing on New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, found 1.1 million low-wage workers had been victims of wage theft, losing an average of about $2,600 from a $17,600 annual income.  In Oregon, the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, or BOLI, receives roughly 2,800 claims of wage theft each year.  Since 2000, the bureau has helped employees get back approximately $17 million in lost income.  But that’s little comfort for people like Sanchez.  “What happens in a typical case of wage theft is nothing,” says D. Michael Dale from the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, a nonprofit legal service that helps immigrant workers fight wage theft. “It’s a huge problem. We are talking about millions of dollars of unpaid wages in the state of Oregon.”  Lawmakers had the chance to address the problem with five bills proposed by Dale’s group. But they caved in to business lobbyists. Democrats, after making a fainthearted effort to help workers, ditched the bills.  One measure, SB 611, would have helped workers like Sanchez by defining the employer-employee relationship, particularly for farm-labor and construction contractors. The bill died in committee after what Dale says was heavy lobbying from business groups. (click on link to read full story)

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