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.
With 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
When Viviane Leungue’s employer refused to pay her $4,200 of her wages, Viviane fought back. Viviane began working as a home health aid in January 2010 for a home health agency, earning $10.50 per hour. She worked hard to ensure her ill and elderly patients consistently received the best care from her possible, yet she herself could not be assured she would be compensated for the work she performed, not knowing when the next paycheck from her employer would arrive. Over the course of the two years that Viviane worked at the home health agency, her paychecks arrived six weeks or 2 months apart, the time span between paychecks lengthening with time. When Viviane complained to her employer, she was told that they simply did not have the money to pay Viviane on time for her work. The late payments continued until Viviane, fed up, quit in January, 2012. After quitting, Viviane called her supervisor on a weekly basis to inquire about her missing paychecks, but was met with the same excuses each time. Frustrated, Viviane came to the Employment Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Clinic on March 14, 2012 to get help. The EJC helped Viviane write a demand letter to the home health agency for $4,200 in unpaid wages. When the agency ignored the letter, the EJC helped Viviane file a claim with the DC Office of Wage Hour (OWH). Hoping to finally be paid, Viviane set up an appointment with the Office of Wage-Hour for April 2012, to file a wage claim. She met with an OWH investigator and showed the investigator all of her timesheets and bank statements to show how much the company owed. The investigator took down all of the information that Viviane had, and told Viviane to go home, and that she would be in touch. Viviane never received a call. Viviane called the investigator at OWH every two weeks for an entire year only to be told the same thing each time – they had not yet heard back from her employer. One day in June of 2013, Viviane decided she had waited long enough. She tried calling OWH one last time to ask about the status of her case when she was met with a familiar response: “I’ll call you back.” Viviane called her former supervisor at the home health agency, yet again, to inquire about her wages, but this time she had an idea. Viviane informed the agency that she would contact the media to inform them that her wages were being stolen if they did not pay her what she was owed. Two hours later, Viviane received a follow-up call from her former employer saying the company would pay her what she was owed if she could bring proof. Viviane showed proof of the wages she was owed, and on June 20th 2013, twenty-one months after she began her fight, Viviane was handed a check for the full amount of her unpaid wages. Unfortunately, Viviane’s story only highlights the endemic practice of wage theft and the inability of OWH to ensure all workers in the District receive the wages they are owed. “I am very disappointed in the Office of Wage-Hour, because when someone goes to that office to get help with their problems, the office needs to do more to stand up and defend the workers,” says Viviane. “They need to stand up and help those who need it the most. This situation has been very stressful for me, to work and not get my pay” she says. “I thought about it all the time because I know it is so much money that I was owed.” Now that the case is closed, Viviane feels relieved. “I can smile now,” she explains. We need your help to win the campaign to stop wage theft. Please sign the wage theft petition to urge the DC Council to enact stronger protections against wage theft, to ensure that all workers receive the wages they are owed.
At Tuesday's happy hour, we heard from activists, restaurant workers and politicians alike – all coming together to share their support for paid sick days for all. Here are Belinda Sheppard (owner of Flava) and Losia Nyankale (who works at Luna Grill and Diner in Dupont), speaking about their own experiences in the restaurant industry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jgIy-YhwTfY Belinda tells the story of her work with the DC Employment Justice Center, and explains why offering paid sick days to her employees is just common sense: she works alongside them, she can't afford to lose business if her customers get sick, and it's just the right thing to do. No one should have to choose between their health and their job. Losia was the subject of a recent Washington Post article, which does a great job explaining how so many foodservice workers are stuck without childcare for their kids and without the ability to stay home to take care of them when they do get sick. "When I wake up in the morning, my routine is a little bit different. The first thing I do is I go over to my kids and I hug them. I hug them because I love them, but also I hug them to make sure they don't have a fever." Workers like Losia need guaranteed paid sick days, no matter where they work or how long they're working there. That's why this campaign is so important. We also heard from Councilmember Tommy Wells: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=WvIbtKR8KfE Councilmember Wells spoke about how the dire predictions of the restaurant lobbies haven't come true in the wake of the 2008 paid sick days law. "It's not the anti-business killer everybody said it would be." It's true – a report by the DC Auditor found that the law has had little to no impact on businesses deciding to locate in the District. Councilmember Wells also implored all of us to join the fight and make our voices heard in the Wilson building! "We need to go back and bring everyone with us. Those brothers and sisters who work every day need to come in and have the same rights as all of the other folks." This won't be easy. Councilmember Wells also spoke to us about some of the opposition we're going to face throughout this summer and into the fall. "I'm a partner in this, but I need your help. There's a lot of corporate interests – they've already started calling my office, and they're outraged...You don't see them; they're in all of our offices, they raise money for our races, they raise money for my colleagues...they have a tremendous amount of power down at the Wilson building...You're going to have to suit up, get into battle, walk our halls – don't ask for permission – meet with us, talk to us." We have a lot of work ahead as we get the word out this summer, and we need your help! Check out the events we have coming up, including a pub crawl and canvass at Screen on the Green. With your help, we can make paid sick days a reality for all workers in the District. As Councilmember Wells said: "It's on. As of right now, it is on."
June was the biggest month yet for EJC victories. Here's a glimpse at all we've accomplished with your help this month. DC Council Acts to Prevent Wage TheftLast Wednesday, DC workers scored some major victories when the DC Council passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act as part of this year's District budget. For years, workers have had to struggle just to get the wages they're owed. Unscrupulous employers have gotten away with stealing their workers' wages because they end up paying just the wages they owed in the first place even when they get caught. As soon as the Mayor signs this law, workers will be able to get up to four times the wages they're owed as compensation for the hardship of having to fight for months or years for their wages. The Act will also make it easier for workers who are cheated out of federal prevailing wages and benefits to enforce their rights in DC courts. This is a huge leap forward for DC workers. Thanks to the worker activists and EJC volunteers and allies who testified about their experiences of wage theft before the DC Council and all who turned out or emailed in support of this amendment. This victory is yours! DC Auditor Adds Fuel to Paid Sick Days Campaign DC’s local paid sick days law is a success, but needs to be strengthened according to a report released Wednesday by the DC Auditor. The report examined the 2008 law’s impact and found that 18% more businesses are offering paid sick days in 2012 than before the law was passed. However, more than 30% of businesses reported that they still do not offer paid sick days, showing the need for wider coverage and stronger enforcement standards. See coverage in the Washington Post, Washington Business Journal, CBS, Salon, and Think Progress. The long-delayed audit was finally conducted due in large part to EJC’s advocacy over the past year. Bikeshare Campaign Heating Up The EJC joined past and present Capital Bikeshare workers last week as they delivered nearly 1500 petition signatures to Capital Bikeshare District Manager Eric Gilliland. They demanded more than $100,000 in back wages and benefits required under the Service Contract Act. Their actions received coverage in the Washington Post and other outlets and workers were interviewed on Fox 5 News and WPFW 89.3’s Morning Brew. EJC Announcements: We are pleased to announce several exciting developments for the EJC this month:
- The EJC was honored by our amazing allies, Jobs with Justice, at the 11th Annual I'll Be There Award.
- EJC's Ari Weisbard has been promoted from Advocacy Manager to the role of Deputy Director. In addition to leading the EJC's advocacy work, Ari is taking on more responsibility for the financial management of the office. Congratulations Ari!
- EJC's Executive Director Barbra Kavanaugh is now serving on the Board of Directors of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). WOW works nationally and in its home community of Washington, DC to build pathways to economic independence for America's families, women, and girls. WOW has a distinctive history in changing the landscape of women and work.
- The EJC thanks to all who donated to help us continue our work to support workers' rights during our Do More 24 fundraiser.
When Ray Hamlet went to the DC Office of Wage and Hour to file a claim for unpaid wages, he did not expect to be given the wrong information about how much money he was owed. But that is what happened when he went to report the thousands of dollars in overtime and unpaid wages he was entitled to from Carl's Place, the group home for disabled adults that he worked in for several years. Ray worked as a counselor at Carl's Place and his workday started at 11:00pm and went well past 9:00am the next morning. He ensured the safety and security of the disabled men he looked after and prepared their morning meals. He worked an average of 20 hours of overtime each week and, when he noticed that his paychecks were short (as well as those of his coworkers), he followed up with his supervisor at Carl's Place's head office. He was told that it would all be "taken care of." As weeks went by and Ray became worried that he would not be able to pay his bills on time, he asked the head of Carl's Place about the status of his payment. She replied laconically that, "Don't worry Ray, okay, we will figure it out and by the way we don't need you anymore. I can do that. I can let you go." Ray was shocked and recalled that "no real reason was given. Are they claiming I was insubordinate because I kept asking for my money? I was there for the company because of the hours that I worked. That was my obligation." He notes that he gave a huge part of his life to Carl's Place and, "my job quit me." Ray went to the Worker's Rights Clinic hosted by the Employment Justice Center and learned that he would have to file a claim with the Office of Wage and Hour to get his unpaid wages. He also learned that in addition to being owed overtime, he was paid less than he should have been under the DC Living Wage Act. The Act requires that contractors and subcontractors receiving significant government assistance in DC, like Carl’s Place, pay their employees at least $12.50 an hour and Ray was paid less. Ray went with an EJC Outreach Fellow to the Office of Wage and Hour to file his claim. Relieved that he had received some guidance about his case, Ray was expecting the Office to help him. He felt tense, but assumed that they were the experts and would pursue his claim. In fact, like states from Virginia to Iowa, the understaffed DC Office of Wage and Hour declined to offer much help. Unfortunately, in order to get help, workers are often required to provide copies of all their time-sheets and related documents, even though their employers often withhold these documents. After speaking to several OWH staff members, Ray was directed to an exemption in the Living Wage Act, ignoring the fact that the exemption wasn’t applicable because facilities like Carl’s Place, which operates under a waiver from D.C.’s Medicaid state plan requirements, are covered by DC’s living wage law. Ray felt like "no one was on my side. Carl's Place violated the law and the Office of Wage and Hour should be there to represent me. We need somebody to get up in their face. If I could afford to sue Carl's Place, I would, but I do not have the means for that. If you make, like, $50,000 a year and you bring an attorney they will do their job. But who you are is how they weigh you." Ray noted that many people give up on the wages that are owed them, on the employers that can't seem to do the right thing. He is not giving up. Ray joined with other members of the EJC's worker's rights group at a hearing held on May 1 to demand that the DC government hold the Office of Wage and Hour accountable and address wage theft in the city. Before the Hearing, Ray wondered, "Is it me? Could I have done something differently?" But when he met many others who have been denied the wages they have worked hard for, he realized that he is not alone. Across the country, workers are holding state and local governments accountable to uphold the law. In New York, advocacy by fast food workers has led to investigations of wage theft and in California new Labor Commissioner Julie Su is proving that government can be an aggressive advocate and protect both workers and good businesses that follow the law. The DC Wage Theft coalition of workers, unions and community organizations was also successful in securing more investigators for the DC Office of Wage and Hour. On May 2, the DC Department of Employment Services announced an increase of staff from five to eight. But there is much more work to be done. Ray concluded, "I'm looking out for the next person. If I scream loud enough, someone has to hear me. We started it, we need to keep it going. We are going to get it done." Want to support workers like Ray? Sign their petition to the DC Council asking for stronger wage theft enforcement laws. This blog post was reported by Erin Kesler, an EJC Volunteer.
Sandra Reed was a DC government worker in law enforcement for over ten years when she was injured on the job. While working in a jail, Ms. Reed was charged by a group of inmates who wanted to get their meal-tickets from her. In an effort to avoid being charged, Ms. Reed stepped backwards and tripped over a chair, hitting her head against a brick wall and sustaining a neck and back injury. Now Ms. Reed is struggling to pay for her monthly rent and groceries and is terrified of becoming homeless again as a result of losing her workers’ compensation benefits. Ms. Reed, like so many injured DC government workers, is a formerly middle-class worker who has been pushed into poverty as a result of her workplace injury. Due to a decade of poor administration and noncompliance, the Public Sector Workers’ Compensation Program has been cutting off benefits for injured DC government workers, leaving them without income or health insurance. In 2002, Ms. Reed, seeking to change the unjust practices of the program, joined a group of injured government workers who advocate for fairer workers’ compensation policies called the Injured Worker Advocates (IWA). IWA, along with its allies at the D.C. Employment Justice Center and D.C. Jobs with Justice, has succeeded in passing several pieces of legislation that provide greater protections to injured workers. Despite these successes, unfortunately, the system remains heavily stacked against injured workers. IWA members advocate to improve the system through legislative reforms like the “Protecting Injured Workers Reform Act.” If added to this year's budget support act, this legislation would protect workers who are still injured from being arbitrarily cut-off by government-appointed “medical evaluators,” known as “IMEs,” whose focus is on denying claims to save money rather than fairly administering benefits for injured workers who need them. Instead of relying primarily on these evaluations, if this legislation passes, the opinions of the physicians who actually take the time to treat workers for their injuries would once again be given greater weight, as they were up until 2011 budget cuts. Ms. Reed describes the deleterious impact of these evaluations on injured workers: “The IMEs have hurt a lot of us injured workers. They always tell us there is nothing wrong with us. I lost my home and was put out on the street because of a false IME report. I was hurt financially and medically because I was not able to get the care I needed. It isn’t right. I thought the DC government would take care of me and that’s not what happened." Click here to email Councilmember McDuffie, who oversees the Public Sector Workers’ Compensation Program, and Council Chair Mendelson to tell them we want this year’s budget to protect injured workers, not push them into poverty! cross posted at http://www.fairbudget.org/act-now-to-help-d-c-s-injured-workers/
On Monday, March 4, 2013, David Melendez, Treasurer of United Workers of DC, testified before the DC Council's Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs about his experiences with wage theft and the Office of Wage-Hour. Below is video and prepared text of his testimony. (Download Microsoft Silverlight to view this DC Council video.) Good morning Councilmembers, Councilmember Marion Barry, and everyone else here today. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my experience. My name is David Melendez. Today I want to talk to you about a problem that I and other like me encounter in our lives. I was working in a downtown Italian restaurant as a busboy, where I was paid seven dollars per hour – below the minimum wage in this city and in the country. I was fired by the owner for talking to him about my wages, because I had worked six weeks yet I had not been paid my salary nor much of my tips for four of those weeks. From each week of work I was owed more than half of my tips. For that reason I decided to talk with the owner of the restaurant. I told him I needed to be paid my tips in full instead of only half. He grew angry, told me to leave and not to come back. I looked for help with the organization United Workers of DC and they helped me to file a claim with the Office of Wage and Hour. They documented my case of wage theft y scheduled a hearing for a date in 20 days to talk with the restaurant owner about what happened. But I had to pay my rent and my bills, so I could not wait for the hearing. I went with representatives from United Workers of DC to see if I could recover my wages more quickly, and in fact the owner agreed to pay almost immediately after he realized that I had an organization supporting me. Although the Office of Wage and Hour was later successful in recovering part of the amount I was owed, it was still at a salary below the minimum wage. If the Office of Wage and Hour cannot recover money for the lost time and lost work – and more quickly – there is not much motivation for me to go there instead of attempting to recover my wages myself.
Activists from DC Employment Justice Center, DC Jobs with Justice, and the DC Wage Theft Coalition packed the room at the Wilson Building on Monday morning at the performance oversight hearing for the Department of Employment Services (DOES). Before heading into the hearing, activists stopped Councilmember Marion Barry to thank him for his work to prevent wage theft and hand him an oversized “bill” for the outstanding balance of unpaid wages. The bill, signed by 43 workers claiming unpaid wages totaling over $260,000, represented just the tip of the iceberg of workers in DC who are not paid the wages they are owed. Committee Chair Barry accepted the "bill" from the activists, stating, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Here’s some video of the workers presenting the bill and Barry’s response: Committee Chair Barry then opened the Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs oversight hearing with remarks in support of the 70 workers and supporters protesting wage theft in DC. (Download Microsoft Silverlight to view DC Council videos.) Several workers and supporters of the DC Wage Theft Coalition testified and Committee Chair Barry responded strongly to each, promising to investigate, consider additional funding for the Office of Wage Hour, and propose wage theft legislation in the near future. Just click their names to see video and text of their testimony. In his testimony, EJC Advocacy Manager Ari Weisbard asked the 70 supporters in the room to stand up, thanked Chairman Marion Barry for his support, and asked for his leadership to protect workers from wage theft. Weisbard testified that since the Office of Wage-Hour does not enforce DC law allowing workers to collect liquidated damages for unpaid wages, dishonest employers still come out ahead, with "an interest-free loan from their own employees.""I had to leave school because I didn’t have the money to pay for the courses. It was very painful to wait almost hopelessly for the money I had worked hard for," said Solange Ayuk, who was owed over $1,000 when the company where she worked as a home health aide did not pay her a months' wages. Jose Ramirez testified that when four of his paychecks bounced, he filed a claim with the Office of Wage-Hour, to no avail. However, when he and two other workers held a protest in front of the restaurant, supported by EJC and the DC Wage Theft Coalition, they were paid their wages in full. "After waiting to be paid for a year and a half, through this approach we were able to accomplish what the office responsible for resolving my case was unable to do," Ramirez told a sympathetic Chairman Marion Barry. Four other workers (James Reese, David Melendez, and Carlos Castillo, President of United Workers of DC) and two attorneys (Richard Brenner and John Durkalski) also testified about their experiences with wage theft. EJC applauds Committee Chair Barry's leadership on workers' rights and wage theft. We thank him for his dedication to ensuring that all workers in the District receive the wages they are owed. We still need your help to win this campaign! Please sign the petition to the DC Council to support stronger protections against wage theft and to ensure all workers receive their wages. As one last sign of what advocacy can accomplish, watch this clip of Office of Wage-Hour Director Pamela Banks’s testimony, which includes the unprecedented statement that she needs at least double the resources to accomplish the job: