“Finally someone put a stop to it”

ondina

Ondina, a 26 year old woman from Honduras, is an exceptionally hard worker. On an average day, Ondina wakes up early, prepares breakfast for her husband, goes to the gym, comes home to shower, and heads off to her first job. After working for eight hours, she heads straight to her second job, arriving home in time only to  go to sleep. “Cuando venimos para aca es para superar, y las familias alla también (When we come here, it is to do better, and so our families do better too),” she says. However, Ondina received a rude awakening, upon arriving in the U.S. four months ago, when she took her first job as a busser at a popular restaurant in Columbia Heights (the restaurant’s name is withheld at Ondina’s request). Ondina was not paid for nearly a month’s wages.  Eventually, through being a strong self-advocate, and through the EJC’s support, Ondina was able to recover the wages she was owed.

In June, 2013, Ondina entered the restaurant in Columbia Heights and asked if they were hiring. Without even handing her an application, the supervisor told Ondina that she was hired and could start work that same day. Thrilled, Ondina worked as a busser for 3.5 weeks, until she realized that she had still not received a paycheck. Her manager told her that he did not know anything about when she would receive a paycheck. Unsure of whether she would be paid, Ondina decided to quit her job. She was still owed $544. A week later, the restaurant owner gave Ondina a check for just $275, which bounced when she attempted to cash it.

Ondina asked her brother-in-law what she could do to recover her wages, and he referred her to the EJC’s Workers’ Rights Clinic. On July 10, Ondina met with an intake volunteer at the Workers’ Rights Clinic, who helped her draft a demand letter to her former employer for $544. Ondina mailed the letter the next day.

Within a few days, Ondina received an angry phone call from the restaurant, demanding to know why she was suing them. “I’m not suing you,” Ondina replied. “I’m just standing up for my rights.” The next day, accompanied by a witness, Ondina went to the restaurant to pick up her check. She received all the wages she was owed. While she was waiting at the restaurant for her check, one of her former coworkers asked her what she was doing there. Ondina explained that she had not been paid, and told the former coworker about the EJC. “Por fin le puso un alto,” (“Finally someone put a stop to it,”) said the coworker.

Despite the happy ending to Ondina’s story, she suffered hardship while waiting to be paid. She was unable to pay her rent, and was unable to send money to her mother in Honduras.

While Ondina recovered her unpaid wages, the restaurant owner still managed to come away without paying liquidated damages. Without stronger penalties, there is no sufficient deterrent for employers, like Ondina’s, 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 practically gets an interest-free loan.

DC workers scored some major victories last month when 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, but more still needs to be done to stop wage theft in DC.

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.