On December 22, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the D.C. federal district court awarded over $207,000 to 13 EJC clients - all carpenters and drywall finishers - in a case under federal and stage wage laws. The case, Freddy Paz Perez, et al. v. C.R. Calderon Construction, Inc., et al., began in 2012, when the workers were referred to the EJC after not receiving the proper prevailing wages, and sometimes any pay at all, for their work on the D.C. Superior Court renovation in 2011. One of the workers, Juan Amurrio Quiroz, even loaned thousands of dollars to the subcontractor who hired him in order to keep the operation afloat, only to see his loan go unpaid as well. The EJC teamed up on the case with the Silver Spring-based litigator Omar Melehy of Melehy & Associates. Together, they took on the workers' case against not only the lowest-level subcontractor who hired the workers, but also a higher-level subcontractor who controlled their work, and their insurance company. After years of litigation, the case went to trial in July 2015, and all clients testified about the work they performed and their supervisors. Over a year and a half later, Judge Howell ruled that C.R. Calderon Construction and its husband-and-wife leadership were so intimately involved in the payment of and instructions given to the workers that they were "employers" under the applicable wage laws. She also concluded that the broad language of the insurance company's bond covered not only the wages owed to the workers, but liquidated damages and attorneys' fees as well. Although the Defendants may appeal the decision, it is a huge step forward. After years of waiting, these workers are one step closer to each possibly receiving thousands - or tens of thousands - in owed wages. We'll keep you updated as the case progresses. To support high-impact legal efforts like this, please donate to the EJC.
Kulemia Masalla came to the Workers' Rights Clinic in 2013 after suffering workplace discrimination. After reviewing her case back in the office, EJC staff realized she had a living wage claim (a higher wage required by a government contract) as well. EJC's Advocacy team accompanied her to the Office of Wage and Hour and later helped her testify in front of the DC Council in support of the Wage Theft Prevention Act. Below, Kulemia tells her story:
Really Grateful to EJC: EMPLOYMENT JUSTICE CENTER.
From Times of old, justice is a LUXURY, not for the poor. We might pretend today, but the rich man has high society and power on his side. The rich has the rich and even the poor on his side ( he has it all!), and when he gives orders, usually wrong selfish orders, the poor must obey or lose his daily bread!!! But it’s amazing what an organization like the EJC can do for the desperate poor. The EJC is there to give the poor the SWEET TASTE AND LUXURY OF JUSTICE.
I had problems at work and also realized that besides my problem, I was also not adequately paid the DC living wage like I was supposed to be paid. I sought advice from somebody in the high ranks of the company who assured me that what I was already being paid was what I had to be paid!
In my search for solutions, I found the EJC on the web and immediately went to cry on their shoulders. They were welcoming, consoling, passionate, attentive, Patient, they always had time to offer to so many people demanding their attention. Though I had been to the DC Office of Wage-Hour, they accompanied me there again, and it was different when they went with me. They went with me to testify against wage theft at a hearing at the DC Council and solicit funding for discipline and greater enforcement of the law. They scanned my problem to come up with a solution which has changed the fate of Health Aides in Washington DC today. Home Health Aide Workers, all over Washington DC, we owe the implementation of the raise in our wages to the EJC!
The living wage had not been increasing over the years and never implemented like they were supposed to because the employers had the knife and the cake and dished it out the way they pleased. And as it would be, the poor is so unaware of his rights. He just wants “something to eat.” But the EJC wholly understands the plight of the poor!
I thank the EJC, not only for the wage increase, but also for the education of the common worker. The health Aides now know that they have to check their wages on a yearly basis on the mayor’s website to be updated with changes. Education is power no matter its dosage. I am immensely thankful to the EJC for their endless and countless services to the poor. I thank EJC for their selflessness and kind heart to fight for those who lack the “strength to fight”.
*The worker's name and the name of employer has been changed at the worker's request* My name is Saul Mendez. I’ve been living in DC for five years and in the United States for 11 years. I worked for four years at two popular restaurants in Dupont Circle who have the same owners. After so many years working there, in October of 2014, they fired me because I asked to take a paid sick day. The truth is that it is really sad that they commit these kind of labor abuses against us. On top of the fact that they didn’t pay me well, they also didn’t pay me overtime. They make you work for lots of hours and don’t treat you well. A few weeks after I was unjustly fired, I went to the Employment Justice Center to see what options I had. At the legal clinic, they helped me to write a letter to my employer demanding that I be paid the overtime that I was owed. Two weeks passed without any response so I went to the Office of Wage and Hour. The first time I went there, I went alone. They accepted my claim about the overtime I was owed but they told me I couldn’t make a claim about paid sick days. I spoke to Emma, one of the organizers at the EJC and she told me that a new law passed which says that employers can’t retaliate against their workers when they need to take time off when they are sick or have a doctor’s appointment. She went with me to the Office of Wage and Hour and only then did they agree that I could make a claim about being fired. One month later, my employer paid me for the paid sick day I took along with triple damages, a total of almost $300. But my case about the three years of overtime that I was owed still wasn’t resolved. I called the Office of Wage Hour almost every week, asking about my case. They told me that my boss said that I hadn’t worked at the restaurant for long, she didn’t want to acknowledge the work that I had done for them. The government called her to make appointments for mediation with her, but she didn’t show up to four consecutive dates. I was hopeless about this process. I’d already spent four months fighting for my wages. In February 2015, I wrote testimony for the Department of Employment Services Performance Oversight Hearing at the DC Council, asking them to hire more bilingual staff so they’d be able to resolve cases like mine more quickly. I know someone else from work who also had a case against our employer but he gave up because it was taking too long. After all this, in April 2015, the Office of Wage Hour called me to say that they’d arrived at an agreement with my employer to pay me $10,000 in overtime. But the office never consulted with me about their negotiations, they simply arrived at an agreement without discussing with me. I went back to the Office of Wage hour, this time with Andrew, one of the attorneys at the EJC. They told us that they were going to ask for more money from my boss, and they got it. On April 20th, I received my first check and finally I’m getting paid for the overtime I worked over two years ago: a total of $12,000 paid over two years. Now I go to the DOES office on Minnesota Avenue every month to pick up my check. I’ve been able to work only one job and leave my second job so that I can enjoy the summer a little bit. Thanks to the EJC for supporting me until the end. I feel good, but I think that workers shouldn’t have to fight so hard for their wages and that the government should do more to resolve these kinds of cases.
This story was written by intern Suzy Jivotovski after an interview with a worker who successfully recovered her wages, and has asked to remain anonymous. I worked for a contracting company doing cleaning work for a hotel in the spring of 2014. I, along with several other women, were told we would be paid $15.95/hr and work 7 hours a day. Our supervisor told us he would be keeping track of our hours and paychecks. When we asked to see the records, he told us he had lost them. We were never shown copies. We only worked for two weeks. On the 29th of April, we arrived to our worksite as scheduled, but the supervisor was not there to let us into the hotel rooms so we could do our job. We called him several times with no answer. He did not arrive at the worksite for the next two days, and none of us were able to contact him. The supervisor disappeared without paying me for two full weeks of work that I completed in April totaling just over $1,000 in wages. Without this money, I was unable to pay my rent for the coming month and was evicted from my apartment. Since the supervisor was gone and we could not continue with the cleaning work, I was left unemployed and without any income, so I had to apply for unemployment. I went to the Employment Justice Center to see how they could help me recover my stolen wages. I was advised to write a demand letter to my employer. I also called the principal office of the company several times, but they never responded to me. I decided to visit the company’s headquarters in DC to ask for my money in person. The second time I went, I was able to meet with my supervisor’s boss, who gave me a check for the wages I was owed. This is not the first time I have been a victim of wage theft. Companies and supervisors are accustomed to treating people this way, but it is not right. I have advice for people who are experiencing this injustice: seek help. It can be hard, and I know people are scared that they have no power in this situation or no time to do anything about it. But sometimes, you fill up with courage. It’s so important to speak up and take action to get the money you are owed and show employers that they cannot continue to rob people of their salaries. I want justice for all workers. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Está historia fue escrita por la estudiante de pasantía, Suzy Jivotovski, después de una entrevista con una trabajadora que logró recuperar su salario, y ha pedido quedarse anonima. Yo trabajé por una compañía de limpieza en un hotel en la primavera de 2014. Nos dijeron que nos iban a pagar $15.95/la hora y íbamos a trabajar 7 horas cada dia. Nuestro supervisor nos dijo que él iba a apuntar las horas y datos que hemos trabajado. Cuando le preguntamos si podíamos ver la anotación de las horas trabajadas, nos dijo que la perdió. Nunca vimos la libreta con la documentación de las horas que hemos trabajado ni la calculación de nuestro salario. Solamente trabajamos dos semanas. En el 29 de Abril, llegamos al lugar de trabajo el la hora arreglada, pero nuestro supervisor no estaba allí para dejarnos entrar en los cuartos para limpiar. Le llamamos muchas veces sin ninguna respuesta de él. El supervisor no llegó al lugar de trabajo en los proximos dos dias, y ningun de nosotros podía contactarlo. El supervisor se huyó sin pagarme por una quincena de trabajo que completé en Abril. Se huyó sin pagarme $1000. Sin este dinero, no pude pagar mi renta y me desalojó de mi departamento. Como no pude continuar con el trabajo en el hotel, estaba desempleado y sin un sueldo. Tenía que aplicar por el desempleo. Fui al Centro de Justicia del Trabajador a ver como me pueden ayudar en la búsqueda de mi pago robado. Me avisaron a escribir una carta de demanda al empleador. También llamé a la oficina muchas veces sin una respuesta de ellos. Decidí a visitar a la oficina principal de la compañía en DC. Después de dos visitas, la secretaría de la oficina reunió conmigo y me dió un cheque para la quincena que trabajé. No es la primera vez que he sido víctima del robo de pago. Compañías y supervisores están acostumbrados a tratar los Latinos así, pero no es justo. Tengo un aconsejo para personas que han tenido una experiencia con el robo de pago: busca ayuda. Ya sé que el miedo y la falta de tiempo pueden ser obstáculos, pero es tan importante tomar acción y buscar el dinero que uno merece. A veces, se llena de coraje. Tienen que mostrar a los empleadores que no pueden continuar a robar la gente de sus sueldos. Quisiera que haya justicia para todos los trabajadores.
Joined by over 60 DC workers and activists, the EJC’s worker activist group, Workers Advocating for Greater Equality (WAGE), sent a powerful message to their community at Saturday’s community meeting: stand up to wage theft. Workers shared stories about their experiences with wage theft with other DC workers, activists, and with the DC Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1), who earlier this month co-introduced the Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2014. WAGE members will be testifying at the bill's hearing with the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at 10am on March 3, and has asked their community to stand with them in the fight against wage theft. Many workers shared their experiences with wage theft and the impact it had on their lives. “Me metí a un restaurante ... a mí me pagaban $400 a la semana y yo estaba contento y todo eso pero no sabía que me robaron allí el overtime (I starting working at a restaurant… they were paying me $400 a week and I was happy, but I didn’t realize that they were stealing my overtime),” said one worker activist who was successful in recovering his unpaid wages.“Y que de mi? Como le hago? (And what about me? What do I do?)” asked Gregorio Hernandez, whose case is still unresolved. “Con cinco hijos que hay que pagar renta, vestir, comer, medicinas, y estudiar? He tenido que ir al psicologo para superar mi depresión (With five children, and I have to pay rent, clothing, food, medicine, and studies? I’ve had to go to the psychologist to overcome my depression).” “Y como yo también hay muchos que por miedo no hablan (And like me there are others, who don’t speak out because of fear)," he added. “Sin importar la nacionalidad, sin importar el credo, sin importar la posicion política, este proyecto de ley que nosotros estamos impulsando es con el proposito de ayudar a todos los trabajadores de DC (It doesn’t matter your nationality, it doesn’t matter your creed, it doesn’t matter your political beliefs, this bill we are promoting is with the goal of helping all workers in DC),” said worker leader Tomas Arevalo from El Salvador. "Sin importar el trabajo que usted desempeñe, sin importar si no es mucho lo que a usted le ofrecieron pagar, pero lo importante sería que a usted se le pague. Pero si a usted le ofrece pagarle una cantidad, y le resulta con otra que no era la convenida, entonces lógicamente le están robando su pago (It doesn’t matter what type of work you perform, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t making a high salary, but what is important is that you are paid. If they offer to pay you one amount, and the amount they pay you is less than what you agreed, then logically, they are stealing your pay)." Maria Hernandez asked for the community to not stay silent and to speak out if they are being abused in the workplace. “Quiero pedir de mis compañeros y personas que estamos en este país, sea de donde sea, que nunca callemos en el trabajo. Porque a veces tenemos temor por la preocupación de no poder darles a nuestros hijos lo que queremos. Como decimos, todos luchamos con el temor de que nos boten de nuestros trabajos, por la preocupación que no podemos pagar la renta o la comida. A mi una vez tuve problemas con eso por un robo de pago, yo tuve que pagar como $47 solo por 3 dias que yo me retrasé de pago (I want to ask my community and the people in this country, wherever they are, to never stay silent at work, because sometimes we are afraid and worried that we will not be able to give our children what we want. As we say, we all struggle with the fear that they will kick us out of our jobs, for the concern that we will not have money for rent or food. I once had problems with wage theft, and I had to pay $47 in fines because my rent was three days late).” Councilmember Jim Graham (Ward 1) attended the meeting, commended the workers for their organization and their heart, and called on them to continue speaking out at the hearing for the Wage Theft Protection Act on March 3. "It's very important that person after person, like you did today, talk about the wrongdoing that has occurred here in the United States against you when people have stolen your money,” he stated. As the workers always state, “En la unión esta la fuerza.” “Me siento contento que tenemos un buen grupo para seguir luchando contra todas las personas que nos quieren explotar en los trabajos (I am pleased that we have a good group to continue struggling against all of the people who want to exploit us at work),” said worker activist Alex Canales. The EJC and WAGE would like to thank the community members who came to the forum as well as ROC-DC, DC Jobs with Justice, Trabajadores Unidos de DC, UFCW Local 400, GW Progressive Student Union, DC for Democracy, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). Thank you for your dedication to the wage theft campaign and supporting workplace justice in DC! For more information about the Wage Theft Prevention Act, check out the report Stolen Wages in the Nation’s Capital. Want to join us to pack the room at the hearing for the bill on Monday, March 3? Please RSVP here. Want to testify at the hearing about your experience of wage theft? Email organizer Hannah Kane for details at email@example.com.
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 Sandra's* employer refused to pay her $4,200 of her wages, Sandra fought back. Sandra 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 Sandra worked at the home health agency, her paychecks arrived six weeks or 2 months apart, the time span between paychecks lengthening with time. When Sandra complained to her employer, she was told that they simply did not have the money to pay Sandra on time for her work. The late payments continued until Sandra , fed up, quit in January, 2012. After quitting, Sandra called her supervisor on a weekly basis to inquire about her missing paychecks, but was met with the same excuses each time. Frustrated, Sandra came to the Employment Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Clinic on March 14, 2012 to get help. The EJC helped Sandra write a demand letter to the home health agency for $4,200 in unpaid wages. When the agency ignored the letter, the EJC helped Sandra file a claim with the DC Office of Wage Hour (OWH). Hoping to finally be paid, Sandra 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 Sandra had, and told Sandra to go home, and that she would be in touch. Sandra never received a call. Sandra 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, Sandra 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.” Sandra called her former supervisor at the home health agency, yet again, to inquire about her wages, but this time she had an idea. Sandra 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, Sandra received a follow-up call from her former employer saying the company would pay her what she was owed if she could bring proof. Sandra showed proof of the wages she was owed, and on June 20th 2013, twenty-one months after she began her fight, Sandra was handed a check for the full amount of her unpaid wages. Unfortunately, Sandra'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 Sandra. “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, Sandra 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. *Name changed to protect worker's privacy.