Wage theft hurts immigrants in Alabama

By Leticia Miranda
Video by Nidhi Prakash Edited by Leticia Miranda

When Juan Vargas heard about an upcoming radio station in Albertville, he immediately jumped at the opportunity to get involved. It was the only Spanish-language radio station in its small 30-mile radius at the time and quickly grew a fan base of local Latino immigrants who found a piece of home in its programming.

“I’d hear people saying at the supermarket ‘I like Charlie Boy’ or ‘I like Elia’,” said Vargas who began work as the general manager of the station in June 2008 as an undocumented worker. “It was really lovely to see. It was something really special.”

It wasn’t too soon after Vargas began work at the station that he sensed that the American owner unscrupulously ran his business when a colleague sold an advertising spot for the station. The owner refused to pay his 25 percent commission for weeks, which amounted to $250. After Vargas paid the staff person through a money order, the owner reprimanded him saying not to do it again.

Months passed and Vargas moved on with the busy work of running the radio station. He paid bills, distributed paychecks and oversaw programming. When unexpected costs or issues came up, the owner was nearly impossible to get a hold of.

“It wasn’t good that I was carrying the whole station by myself and I didn’t have the owner’s support,” said Vargas, who immigrated to the United States 17 years ago from Mexico. “So I decided to quit the job.”

When he finally met with the owner to resign, the owner blamed him for not coming to him sooner. He refused to pay him for the last two weeks. Vargas, with little recourse to get his salary owed to him, gave the owner his keys and left. He lost $800 in pay.

“Really, $800 is a lot. That’s rent, food. I have a family to take care of,” he said. Even though Vargas received his green card just a month before leaving the job, the cost and time it would take to recuperate his lost wages kept Vargas from pursuing it further.

“There is a saying ‘you lose more in war’ and I prefer to leave things alone,” he said. “At the end, you realize it’s more costly to fight something than to leave it how it is.”

Vargas is one of many immigrants who have experienced wage theft where employers withhold money owed to their employees. The problem is a growing issue in Alabama as the state goes through a rapid increase of immigrant workers in low-wage jobs who often do not have the resources to recover lost wages. The state’s anti-immigrant sentiment coupled with the weak enforcement of federal labor standards means immigrants like Vargas are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse.

“Wage theft has happened a lot in many parts of the state,” said Evelyn Servin, an organizer with Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, who was born in California and raised in Mexico before migrating to Alabama. “It has continued to happen under HB 56 because people are afraid to say anything.”

Servin’s brother-in-law had his wages stolen and refuses to report it because he is afraid of retaliation.

In 2011, Alabama passed a sweeping bill, HB 56, to crack down on illegal immigration to increase job opportunities for citizens and deter undocumented immigrants from entering the state. The bill was driven by a “self-deportation” strategy, which aims to create a severely punitive environment for immigrants to the point that they choose to flee or decide not to immigrate to the state at all.

“The bill is a reasonable response on the part of state to protect the interests of citizens there,” said Ira Mehlman, national media director with Federation for American Immigration Reform. “States have an interest in enforcing federal immigration laws because they are the ones who are required to provide education and services to people whose jobs are taken by illegal immigration.”

The Supreme Court struck down the bill’s most stringent provisions this July, but police are still instructed to check the citizenship status of anyone they stop for routine traffic violations if they suspect they are undocumented. There are currently 163, 259 immigrants living in the state, which is an 85 percent increase from 2000, according a Census analysis by the Migration Policy Institute.

“A lot has changed since I came,” said Vargas. He immigrated to the United States without documentation in 1986, when the country’s immigration enforcement laws mainly targeted employers hiring undocumented immigrants. “Now people listen to the radio and hear all these things about immigrants wanting welfare and not paying taxes.”

Immigrant worker abuse extends far beyond wage theft. Israel Reyes, a 37-year old undocumented Mexican immigrant and member of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, has worked on and off as a dishwasher since migrating to Montgomery three years ago. This April, he worked for a Mexican-owned restaurant as a dishwasher. The owner offered to pay him $600 biweekly and expected him to work 12-hour days with no overtime.

“The owner of the restaurant thought this was natural,” he said. “It’s an issue of dignity because how are you going to pay me $3.45 hour when the law says that you need to pay minimum wage and overtime?”

The owner told Reyes that he did not charge for food or soda that employees might consume during their work hours as a reason for the low wages. When Reyes quit after three days on the job, the owner gave him $140 for those days of work.

“You realize that they’re using you. They’re exploiting you. That’s the reality,” he said through a smile. “I smile because it’s not fair. It’s not a fair situation.”

“When employers are found to be withholding wages, they should be prosecuted,” said Mehlman. “That’s really the way to discourage illegal immigration. If illegal aliens understood that employers were punished for hiring them, then fewer people would come looking for jobs.”

Some employment policy groups say that it is also not legal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a 40-hour workweek, the national minimum wage, overtime pay and retaliation protections for workers in the United States . This rampant abuse of immigrant and undocumented workers extends beyond Birmingham. In a 2009 report from the National Employment Law Center, an employment policy group, roughly 26 percent of surveyed workers were paid less than minimum wage, 41 percent had illegal deductions taken from their paycheck and 12 percent had their tips stolen from them by other employees or supervisors.

“Every single court has said that if you’re an undocumented worker you are entitled to protection under FLSA,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Center. Just this July the 8th Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that employers are prohibited from exploiting a worker’s immigration status or profiting from hiring undocumented workers.

But with strained resources on the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is tasked with investigation compliance violations, Gebreselassie said many cases go uninvestigated.

“As an employer if you wanted to violate the FLSA unfortunately it’s too easy to do so,” said Gebreselassie. “There is often little incentive for these employers to comply [with the Act] because we don’t have the public resources for government agencies to investigate and enforce it.”

A 2008 Government Accountability Office report found that the Wage and Hour Division’s Labor Standards Act compliance actions fell by a third between 1997 and 2007 to just 30,000. In 2011 it completed only 33, 295 actions against employers, according to its most recent budget brief. The GAO report also found the agency focused on the same industries over that decade – agriculture, food services, healthcare and social services – but ignored the growing low-wage industry where workers are most vulnerable to labor standard violations.

As government agencies struggle through strapped resources and misdirection, labor lawyers are stretched thin with cases.

“There are amazing lawyers who work tirelessly on these cases,” said Gebreselassie. “But if you think about how many workers who are having their rights violated then there aren’t enough lawyers.”

In many cases, workers lose anywhere between a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. While a few thousand dollars is a lot for one person to lose in salary, it may not be worth bringing it to court because of the high costs of going to trial, said Gebreselassie.

Local Alabama organizations like the Hispanic Interest Coalition and Greater Birmingham Ministries are opening up new paths for immigrant workers to recover stolen wages. Just last year, the Hispanic Interest Coalition based in Birmingham helped to recover $7,481 for about 11 workers by sending letters to their employers demanding their wages.

Greater Birmingham Ministries, an interfaith social justice organization, helped recover a paycheck for their first client under their new campaign against wage theft called “Winning Our Wages.” This client was a Latina immigrant who started work as a janitor for a cleaning company contracted by the department store. Her second biweekly check bounced. When she called to ask for her pay, the company never returned her calls. With the help of Greater Birmingham Ministries, she was able to recover her paycheck just a month later.

“The best way to tackle a below the surface crisis like this is to work along side workers in winning back their wages,” said Scott Douglas, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. “They are the best ones to convince others that they can speak out against injustice, win their wages back and speak back to people who want to retaliate against them.”