Victory! Eight Workers Recover $75,000 in Unpaid Wages

waiter picWith EJC’s assistance, eight workers were able to settle their wage theft claims and recover $75,000 in unpaid wages against a downtown DC restaurant. (Due to the settlement agreement, we can’t disclose the restaurant’s name.)

Humberto*  worked for two years at the restaurant for 50 hours a week. He earned a flat weekly rate of $350, which is far below the minimum wage, and received no overtime pay.  Unfortunately, Humberto was not the only worker being exploited at this popular dining spot.

Between November of 2012 and February of 2013, Humberto, along with  seven other workers at the restaurant who were also being paid less than the minimum wage and no overtime, were  fired abruptly .  They began talking amongst themselves about the wage theft they had all experiences and decided to unite and take action to recover the wages they were owed.

In March, these eight workers came into the EJC Workers’ Rights Clinic. They alleged wage theft violations by their employer. The employer had paid them all less than the minimum wage, which he hid by paying them a flat weekly pay rate. As a result, none of the workers had been earning the DC minimum hourly wage of $8.25, and none of the workers was paid overtime, though they worked at least 50 hours a week. In total, the workers were owed over $90,000.

The EJC’s organizing and legal departments collaborated to develop a comprehensive plan with the workers on how they could proceed to recover their unpaid wages. As a group, the workers discussed in depth the possibilities of negotiation, litigation, and a public campaign as different ways to put pressure on their employer to pay them their wages.

The workers chose to begin by negotiating with their former employer. With representation from EJC attorney Justin Zelikovitz and support from EJC organizer Hannah Kane, the workers entered into negotiations with their employer.

Through the negotiations process, the restaurant owner agreed to pay the workers most of their wages. The workers came to an agreement with the owner that he would pay them $75,000 in back wages. In June of 2013, after years of exploitation and abuse, the workers were finally able to win back most of the wages that were stolen.

“What was important in this case was justice,” said Humberto. “We wanted [the owner] to learn that he cannot play with people’s lives. Just because we are humble, it does not mean that we will let them take advantage of us.”

While the workers recovered most of their stolen wages, the restaurant owner still managed to come away without paying liquidated damages to his former employees. Without stronger penalties like liquidated damages, there is no sufficient deterrent for employers to comply with the wage and hour laws of the District. If anything, there is a financial incentive for employers to continue to steal their workers’ wages – the employer effectively gets an interest-free loan.

But the movement to end wage theft is growing stronger. DC workers scored a major victory last month. The DC Council passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act as part of this year’s District budget. The Act contained unprecedented protections against wage theft, including allowing for damages up to triple the unpaid wages when businesses steal from their employees. These protections will serve as much stronger deterrents to employers who consider stealing their workers’ wages, and will substantially reduce wage theft in DC.

“We’re going to continue to fight for all workers in DC,” says Humberto. “This case doesn’t stop with us. We want to make sure all workers are treated justly and fairly and are paid.”

We still need your help to stop wage theft. Sign the wage theft petition today, to ensure that all workers receive the wages they are owed and to fight for an end to wage theft in the District.

 * name changed