Immigrants vulnerable as recession spurs more bosses to shortchange workers

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; A01

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of Latino men wearing paint-spattered jeans and grim expressions strode through Adams Morgan in search of the contractor who had cheated them. He'd hired them to remodel a wine shop in the Northwest neighborhood in November and December but paid a fraction of what he had promised before disappearing. Now they were hoping the owner of the shop could offer clues as to the contractor's whereabouts.

Luis Colli, 33, a day laborer from Mexico, said he was owed more than $2,000 after more than a month's work. He was forced to give up his apartment in Langley Park because he couldn't make the rent, then take out a loan to cover an operation that his diabetic mother-in-law needed in Mexico.

His wife back in Mexico urged him to "let this go," Colli said in Spanish, sighing wearily as the group reached the wine shop. "But I told her: 'If I let it go, then it means I've been intimidated. If I let it go, it means there's no justice.' "

Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer with D.C. Jobs With Justice, nodded encouragingly. The morning's mission was among the first steps in a new effort the nonprofit group has launched to fight what appears to be a growing trend of employers skipping out on wages.

Although data on the prevalence of wage theft in the Washington area are not available, there are signs that the recession has prompted more employers to shortchange their workers, either by failing to pay the promised amount or by offering less than minimum wage in the first place. Construction, restaurant and janitorial workers appear particularly vulnerable, especially if they are immigrants who don't speak English or lack legal status.

Sebastian Amar, the staff attorney who handles employment cases for the immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland, said even well-intentioned employers are engaging in the practice, particularly when they run out of money in the middle of construction projects.

The Northern Virginia office of the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center just added a third lawyer to help handle its 300 annual wage-theft cases, said staff attorney Claudia Henriquez.

At the District's Office of Wage-Hour, the number of workers seeking help to recover stolen wages rose to 523 last year, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2008. And at the D.C. Employment Justice Center, a nonprofit legal clinic, the spike was almost as great, reaching 317 in that time, said Lisa Guerra, the lawyer who handles such cases.

Jobs With Justice and allied groups have responded by training low-skilled workers to help one another gather information needed to mount legal cases. Failing that, they plan to try more creative tactics: picketing recalcitrant contractors in hopes of shaming them or asking larger companies or government entities that employ bad bosses to pressure them to pay up.

"The capacity of volunteers and nonprofit staff to be able to follow through on these cases is going to be limited given how big the problem is," Baris said. "Having workers themselves be at the front line is the best way to be effective."

The magnitude of the challenge was evident as soon as she and the workers entered the wine shop. Colli, who in Mexico was able to study only through elementary school, began a hesitant explanation of the purpose of their visit, which another organizer translated into English. To Colli's relief, the owner of the wine shop responded with a sympathetic smile. The contractor had cheated him as well, he said, charging $35,000 above the initial bid before leaving the job unfinished.

"I'm trying to find him, too," he said. But he had little additional information to offer: a bank account number and the name and phone number of the contractor's accountant.

"Okay. It's something," Baris said. "Possibly the police can use this information to find him."

Pursuing employers

If they can locate the contractor, the workers can sue in small claims court or D.C. Superior Court. Employers who are unable to provide records proving payment can be held liable not merely for the original amount but for penalties and damages above it.

Workers who lack the resources or know-how to pursue a legal case also can go to the District's Office of Wage-Hour, part of the city's Department of Employment Services. Staff members there first try to get employers to pay voluntarily. Failing that, they can refer cases to the city's attorney general for prosecution.

The city's court system is considered so favorable to workers that the employer in all five cases Guerra has brought to trial since she started at the D.C. Employment Justice Center in May has chosen to settle at the last minute. She has 17 more cases, covering about 30 workers, pending.

However, the Employment Justice Center is one of the few nonprofit groups that will take on such cases for a minimal fee. And as the only lawyer on hand to litigate them, Guerra must turn away far more workers than she can help. As for the city's Wage-Hour Office, worker advocates complain that it moves so slowly it's ineffectual.

John Tremblay, a paralegal with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs who has helped 26 day laborers file claims since August 2008, said staff members have been able to persuade employers to pay in five of the cases. In the remaining 19 cases, the employer refused to pay or even to show up, yet Wage-Hour staff members appear to have referred only one case to the attorney general for prosecution.

"From what I've seen, if an employer wants to ignore the summons from Wage and Hour, there just aren't going to be any consequences," Tremblay said. "[The staff] is fine with just letting the cases sit there in limbo."

Joseph P. Walsh Jr., director of the D.C. Employment Services Department, said that more than 85 percent of the time, Wage-Hour staff members are able to persuade employers to pay by negotiating with them. But Walsh said he was troubled by reports that the staff had been slow to refer noncompliant employers for prosecution. Since he first heard the complaint at a meeting with worker advocates in May, Walsh said: "I've directed our office to be more aggressive on those cases. . . . We're moving those cases much faster than before."

Training employees

Organizers at Jobs With Justice are unconvinced and have decided to pursue alternative options when possible, inspired by similar efforts by groups in San Francisco and Austin. Since late fall, they have trained 11 workers from an independent association of day laborers called the Union de Trabajadores to act as the intake staff of a walk-in wage-theft workshop. Sessions are held every other Thursday night at Foundry United Methodist Church in Dupont Circle. More than 19 workers have sought help.

At a recent session, the cases included that of Oscar Martinez, 54, of Guatemala. He had been working for a small refuse pickup company for three years when the owner announced that, because of a slowdown in business, he would have to cut Martinez's pay slightly. Martinez accepted, but shortly afterward, the boss disappeared without paying him for the last two weeks.

"He used to pick me up at this McDonald's. But he just stopped showing up," Martinez said in Spanish. "I've been calling him and calling him, but he never answers."

Socorro Garcia, one of the workers trained to do intake, clucked his tongue as he wrote the details of Martinez's case on a form. "I felt so sad, because I have experienced the same thing," Garcia said afterward. "I know what it feels like. That's why I'm trying to help."

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