Tip withholding, denied breaks at work can be telling signs of wage theft
Have you intentionally been denied work breaks, vacation or sick leave time at work? Have your tips been withheld by a business owner or manager?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then you may be a victim of wage theft.
“Wage theft is a form of fraud” and happens when employers do not pay workers according to the law, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.
Who is most affected by wage theft?
The Labor Commissioner's Office has referred more than 15,000 wage claims to a hearing over the last two years, but resolved only half that number, KQED reported.
There were 32,000 new cases filed in 2018 and 19,000 in 2021, a possible pandemic effect given businesses were shutting down and/or workers probably feared losing their jobs if they complained, KQED reported.
However, it is uncertain how many workers in San Joaquin County are impacted by wage theft.
“Most of the complaints that we hear are from agricultural workers or people who were hired to do a job for a day or two, and then, they (employers) don’t pay them what they promised them (employees),” Jose Rodriguez president and CEO of El Concilio said.
“Unfortunately, I hate to say this, but most of the time, it’s a Hispanic labor contractor taking advantage of another Hispanic,” not exclusively white contractors, Rodriguez said. “Because a lot of the time they (workers) go to people who speak their language, trusting them, and then the surprise comes when they are done (working) and they are expecting to get paid and then they don’t get paid what they were due,” he said.
But overall, wage claims are not prevalent compared to other cases at the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office.
“Unless we have people who are reporting, people who are willing to go through the claims process, it is very difficult to track this (wage theft) information,” and have reliable data on wage theft in our county, said Elisa Bubak, public information officer for the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office. The DA's office and Quality of Life division are in the investigative phase of one wage theft case as of March 24.
Under California Assembly Bill 1003, passed in September 2021, wage theft is punishable as grand theft when in a period of 12 consecutive months an employer:
- Doesn't pay $950 in intentional theft of wages, including gratuities, from any one employee
- Doesn't pay $2,350 in intentional theft of wages, including gratuities, from two or more employees
Concerned because you are owed a lesser amount? Or because of your immigration status? California law protects all workers and can file a wage theft claim.
All workers are protected by California labor laws
All workers, including independent contractors and undocumented agricultural workers are protected under California’s labor laws.
“It does not matter where you were born or whether you have papers to work,” the state’s wage theft information website says.
“The Labor Commissioner's Office will not ask about your immigration status or report your immigration status to other government agencies,” it continued. “You do not need a social security number or photo identification to file a claim or report a violation.”
However, there are local workers in Stockton and across San Joaquin County who remain hesitant to denounce wage theft.
“We try to encourage them (employees experiencing wage theft) to report this either to the Labor Commission or maybe file a police report when they are taken advantage of, when they are not paid,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez leads one of the largest community-based organizations serving the region’s diverse low-income, minority and marginalized communities.
“Most of these folks don’t want to do that (file a wage report) because they are concerned about their (immigration) status or the repercussions of what might happen to them or their family,” he said.
He said there are cases where labor contractors or people who hire workers for one-time jobs would tell employees, “I’ll call INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service); I’ll get you deported,” further discouraging workers from filing wage theft reports, increasing their hesitancy because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
How to file a wage theft claim
Wage theft claims can be filed online at https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/howtofilewageclaim.htm. or at the Labor Commissioner's Office informational website about wage theft at https://wagetheftisacrime.com/.
“The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office and Quality of Life Division prosecute wage theft crimes when referred by local law enforcement or by the Labor Commissioner’s Office,” Bubak said.
“In order for us to get these referrals, the best way people can report wage theft is through the Labor Commissioner’s Office,” she said.
An administrative hearing is part of the Labor Commissioner's review process and can be intimidating for the claimant, Rodriguez said. "For that person — having to come face to face again with the person who (allegedly) took advantage of them — is intimidating and they know who they are now, so then the repercussions are what concerns them.”
Protecting the identity of someone filing a claim would aid in helping people come forward.
Maybe, “there’s a way that they can investigate and bring the labor contractor in, payroll records and things like that, so they could verify what these folds (who filed reports) are saying and take it from there, rather than having to force someone to come forward and say, ‘it was him,’ and self-identify themselves as the one who is complaining,” Rodriguez said.
Record reporter Laura Diaz covers social justice and societal issues. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @laurasdiaz_. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at https://www.recordnet.com/subscribenow.