Every day, victims of wage theft reach out to worker centers and other grassroots organizations across Minnesota for help. Increasingly, these groups are playing a critical role in raising awareness of wage theft, organizing workers to address the problem and, in some cases, recovering stolen wages.
In the Twin Cities, two Minneapolis-based organizations – CTUL, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha/Center of Workers United in Struggle; and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change – have supported fast food, janitorial and temp workers who have been cheated. Both groups are a driving force behind efforts for increased protection against wage theft at the city level.
In Greater Minnesota, Centro Campesino, a social justice center in Owatonna, and the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, a community-based organization based in St. Cloud, aid agricultural, food processing and restaurant workers who have experienced wage theft.
Low-wage workers who do not have access to a union often seek out worker centers for support, legal guidance and help in organizing. Because so many of their members come from a vulnerable section of the workforce, it is no surprise that these non-traditional labor organizations are witnessing a steady number of cases of wage theft.
Lucila Dominguez experienced various forms of wage theft when she worked as a janitor. After organizing with CTUL, she was able to recover $500 from a company that did not give her a final paycheck and $2,000 from a company that deducted money from her paycheck.
In the latter case, “I would get my wage, but then I would have to buy all of the materials to clean the restaurant on my own,” she said. “So the mops, the chemicals, all of that stuff, I had to pay for out of my own paycheck. And if there were anything – any damage – that happened inside that restaurant, they would take that money out of my paycheck without my permission.”
Dominguez is now one of the lead organizers for CTUL’s Workplace Rights Defenders Committee, which trains leaders in low-wage jobs to know their rights, survey their workplaces and document problems. The committee gathers information from workers who have experienced wage theft and presents evidence to investigators.
Building owners hire cleaning companies that often subcontract the work to other companies, sometimes making it difficult to determine the actual employer and creating an environment where wage theft can flourish. CTUL has learned to dig through these layers to find the responsible party.
In eight years, CTUL has helped workers recover more than $1.8 million in lost wages.
In addition to working through enforcement agencies, CTUL has used the courts. Last spring, it helped 11 workers file a class action lawsuit against Capital Building Services Group, a company subcontracted by Macy’s and Herberger’s. The workers said the contractor did not pay them for all of the hours they spent cleaning stores and failed to provide them with paystubs.
On Feb. 16, CTUL announced a settlement for these workers in the amount of $425,000 in back wages and damages.
Workers like Steven Suffridge, a night shift employee at a fast food restaurant, have become activists in CTUL after experiencing a different form of wage theft. He said supervisors sometimes don’t allow him to take a mandatory, paid break but the restaurant still deducts the 30 minutes worth of time from his paycheck.
“I mean, it doesn’t sound like you’d be making that much money in 30 minutes, but it does add up,” he said.
Neighborhoods Organizing for Change
At its north Minneapolis headquarters, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change fields complaints from the community, including people who have been victims of wage theft.
NOC Field Director Mike Griffin believes wage theft violations occurred at Target Field, where last summer temp workers stood in line for three to four hours -- unpaid -- in order to get concessions jobs at Minnesota Twins baseball games.
The temp workers were mostly African-American, Griffin said, describing the scene as “Lines of black people, lined up as if they were cattle, lined up as if this is a slave line . . .”
Lovie Franklin said she would receive text messages at midnight, notifying her about work available at 8:30 a.m. Once she arrived at the ballpark, she would wait in a line for an hour to be screened before entering the stadium. She and other temp workers would then file downstairs and wait in another line for two or three more hours before actually starting work, she explained.
NOC representatives said they took the workers’ wage theft claim to both the U.S. Department of Labor and state Department of Labor and Industry, but were told neither agency had jurisdiction to investigate because of the small size of the employer and the seasonal nature of the work. NOC representatives also met with officials of Delaware North, the company that manages Target Field concessions, but were told to take the concerns to the temp agencies.
The situation at Target Field also illustrates the need for fair scheduling policies, Griffin said.
A NOC survey of 500 north Minneapolis workers, 75 percent of whom are black, found that 55 percent reported they receive their work schedules a week or less in advance. NOC is urging the City of Minneapolis to pass ordinances to crack down on wage theft and require employers to provide more notice of work schedules.
“These are simple solutions . . . The respect, dignity and life of African Americans would be raised with these very simple working protections,” said Griffin.
For 15 years, the social justice center Centro Campesino has worked with the Latino community in southern Minnesota, including workers employed in agricultural jobs.
Executive Director Ernesto Velez said working conditions vary depending on the size and type of farm. One of the most common forms of wage theft involves farm owners putting employees on salary, then working them extremely long hours.
“Sometimes we come across people who are employees at farms where they’re doing basically field farm work, but their paychecks are on salary. And so, that’s where we ask, ‘How many hours are you working a week?’ And we make the math and then we find out that they’re getting paid actually under the minimum wage,” he said.
Learn more about wage theft in Minnesota’s agriculture industry.
Greater Minnesota Worker Center
At the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, organizers have seen multiple cases of wage theft in food processing and restaurants. Ahmed Ali, lead staff organizer at GMWC, has heard from poultry plant workers who were paid with debit cards, spent unpaid hours putting on and taking off work-required gear and, in some cases, were fired after getting injured in the workplace.
The poultry industry has higher rates of injury than most other businesses – and getting injured on the job can result in a form of wage theft.
“And so when workers get injured, they get fired right away because the companies do not want to assume liability for their injuries,” Ali said. “And so by not getting workers compensation, they are losing wages. And that has happened so rampantly here in Central Minnesota.”
The GMWC has had little success so far in addressing wage theft in the poultry industry, organizers said.
They have had better luck in taking direct action to help restaurant workers.
The GMWC intervened on behalf of two undocumented restaurant workers who were denied pay. After the restaurant owner refused to pay back these workers, GMWC sent organizers to sit down and talk to him in person, Ali said.
“And first he refused and finally we told him, you know, we’re going to take direct action against him if he doesn’t, you know, pay his workers. And finally, he decided to pay them both in cash and in check,” Ali added.
Fears of retaliation
In order to help victims of wage theft navigate the complex system of enforcement, worker centers must help them overcome the fear they have about speaking out.
For workers “to fight that case, it means that you could lose your job,” said Velez. “If you lose your job – even for a week or two – that means that you have to figure out what you’re going to do. Your life changes completely.”
Workers’ fears are often well founded. Merle Payne of CTUL recalled a case in which employer retaliation came in the form of an assault. Payne explained that this particular employee was on a salary, but based on the number of hours he worked, he was only paid about $4 an hour.
“He was just trying to have a conversation with the employer about it and he threw a frying pan at his head for complaining about it,” Payne said. “When that’s the reality in the workplace, that you complain and somebody throws a frying pan at your head – if [the employer] threatens you with physical harm or can take away your economic bottom line by firing you and there’s no consequences – nobody complains.”
As Workday Minnesota conducted interviews for this series, it was difficult to find workers who were willing to speak on camera. Ali said that in Central Minnesota, workers fear being blacklisted.
“We have them speak on radio because of the anonymity it provides them. Nobody can see their face,” he said. “But companies really, really intimidate people. And when they see people speaking up, they fire them right away.”
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An investigation by Workday Minnesota found wage theft is larger and more widespread than most people realize. Minnesotans are losing millions of dollars every year.