Workers take action to recover earned pay
Gabriel*, a truck driver in Florida, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when his former employer denied him a final paycheck.
For nearly two years, he drove an 18-wheel semi-trailer truck to deliver Acosta Farms’ plants to Home Depot and Sam’s Club stores all over the state. When he was replaced by a younger worker in February, he lost more than his job—he was let go without getting paid for a week’s work, earned vacation time, or overtime.
He is one of thousands of Floridians who experience wage theft, and one of a growing number who are filing claims to recover the money they’ve earned.
“I was working in many weeks up to 94 hours,” Gabriel said in his claim. He calculated that he worked nearly 700 overtime hours in his time with the company.
The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that covered workers be compensated at least 150 percent of their regular wage for any hours worked beyond 40 in a single week. But in two years as their employee, Gabriel never received overtime payment from Acosta Farms. “[When] I asked my supervisor I was told that Acosta Farms [doesn’t] pay overtime to nobody,” he said.
He turned to AFSC’s office in Miami to get help.
Over the last decade, AFSC has become known among immigrants in south Florida as a place that can help day laborers, farm workers, and domestic workers resolve labor conflicts.
A landmark moment in that work came in 2010, when AFSC played a key role in passing the nation’s first countywide wage-theft legislation in Miami. The resulting county office now handles wage-theft complaints, but the office is understaffed.
“Our office refers cases to the wage theft office but the workers return to us when they see a lack of government response,” says Herman Martinez, community social advocate in AFSC’s Miami office.
Immigrant laborers trust Herman, which may be why so many people come to him for help. “Since I am another immigrant and I’ve been a farm worker and a construction worker, we can talk,” he says.
Herman worked with Gabriel to try to recover his wages from Acosta Farms. They reached out to the owner and general manager as an initial courtesy, and recovered $800 of the more than $6,000 owed to Gabriel.
It’s not unusual for an employer to respond with a partial payment, Herman says. Depending on the severity of the claim, he often refers workers to other agencies or law firms who can move their cases forward.
He has good relationships with government departments, law firms, and other nonprofits who he can call on depending on the nature and scope of a given case. “We have friends everywhere, so we use them,” he says.
Herman also educates workers about their rights and advises them on how to prevent wage theft. He speaks to immigrants at various consulates about domestic work and counsels day laborers about the risks of taking a job without an employer’s contact information.
“Most of the workers on the street don’t get the main telephone number of the employer,” he explains. “They don’t have any way to get wages back when the employer disappears.”
The burden falls on the employees to prove that they worked the hours and weren’t paid, and to seek help or file a claim to recover their wages.
In one current case, Herman is assisting a woman who worked overnight shifts cleaning a supermarket. She hasn’t been paid a cent for the 116 hours that she worked.
The contractor who hired her claims that he did pay her, but did so under the table because she’s undocumented (she’s not—she has documentation to work in the United States). Conversations with four of his former employees revealed that this is not the first time he’s tried to withhold wages from immigrant workers.
Under U.S. law, employers are responsible for verifying employment eligibility before hiring, and workers have the right to be paid at least minimum wage for all work they do, regardless of legal status.
With a handwritten record of the hours she worked, the woman has no guarantee that she will recover her wages. But with Herman advocating for her and taking the time to work things out with the supermarket chain and its cleaning services supplier, she has hope.
*Gabriel is a pseudonym.