Success Stories

WJC press conference 4 2010 011

Our worker success stories show how the Wage Justice Center unravels corporate schemes and holds such unscrupulous employers accountable for wage theft. We’re collected nearly $14 million for over 6,000 workers with stories just like these:

COMPANY RETALIATES AGAINST JANITOR WHO CLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT

”Olivia,” a janitorial worker for “Good Quality Janitorial,” spoke out in public about the prevalence of wage theft in the janitorial industry as part of a bigger workers’ rights campaign organized by Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), a group that advocates for janitors and janitorial employers who play fair.

Olivia did not mention her company’s name nor the Southern California Police Department where she cleaned restrooms, emptied trash and vacuumed.

Yet when her boss found out about her talk, he promptly fired her. After nearly seven years of working for him, Olivia was pushed out for simply declaring the truth.

Olivia filed claims for years of wage theft. The California Labor Commissioner issued a judgment for $20,000, but like most victims of wage theft, Olivia couldn’t get paid with the judgment alone. She turned to the Wage Justice Center.

Our investigation revealed that the janitorial company was evading its responsibility by simply changing the corporation’s name.

You can imagine Olivia’s frustration and disappointment every time she passed her local Police Department, knowing her former employer was doing the same work, at the same location, but claimed to be a different company simply because it was now “Good Stuff Janitorial” instead of “Good Quality Janitorial.”

Our investigation revealed evidence that’s unfortunately common in our work: The owner’s corporation was suspended because Good Stuff Janitorial owed $5,000 in back taxes to the State of California.

When Wage Justice Center and MCTF filed a lawsuit against Good Stuff Janitorial for taking the police station business account from Good Quality Janitorial, we also asked for an expedited proceeding, so Olivia didn’t have to wait for two years of litigation to prove the obvious.

Because the $5,000 in back taxes prevented the employer from responding, it would have been sensible to negotiate a payment plan with Olivia. But spite is rarely sensible: The same spite led him to pay $5,000 in back taxes just to be able to file an opposition to our expedited proceeding.

Yet, his opposition filing was futile: our Public Records Act Request to the City disclosed that the right to clean the Police Station went from Good Quality Janitorial to Good Stuff Janitorial without a new bid. This tied together both companies.

The employer paid Olivia an additional $28,000, covering nearly four years of interest.

Olivia’s activism on behalf of all workers continued. She traveled by bus to Sacramento to advocate for prior versions of the now-passed SB 588.

WAGE THEFT IS A FAMILY BUSINESS

The Wage Justice Center represented five garment workers in a joint lawsuit to collect approximately $100,000 in unpaid wages that the California Labor Commissioner had ordered to be paid.

These workers had received a piece rate that amounted to approximately $3.65 per hour, well below our state’s minimum wage.

A mere 3 months after the wage theft judgments were entered into court, the married couple who owned the garment factory transferred over $1 million in assets (including their home and another business) to their college-age son. The owners transferred these assets in exchange for no money.

The Wage Justice Center took over the case a couple of years after the court ordered a judgment for wage theft. Our initial research found that the owners had no personal assets. We continued digging until we discovered this transfer of assets to their son. We filed a fraudulent transfer lawsuit.

After substantial discovery and a long mediation, we reached an agreement mandating that the employers pay the wages owed to the workers. Further, we made sure this agreement included providing a deed of trust to the workers to secure full payment.

HIJAB YANKED OFF AND WAGES STOLEN

Nneka was working for a tax service company when she was abruptly fired and sent home without her final wages or her dignity.

“I was often ridiculed and ostracized because I wore a headscarf,” says Nneka. “On the day I was fired, the owner attacked me and sent me home with nothing. She yanked off my scarf and called me names.”

Nneka navigated the Labor Commissioner wage-claim process on her own and obtained a judgment for $7,341.14 in unpaid wages.

However, her former employers refused to pay – and, even went so far as to falsely represent to the Labor Commissioner that she had been paid (a representation that was proven false). Legal Aid was unable to help Nneka, due to a lack of expertise in the law of remedies and referred her to the Wage Justice Center.

Within four months, we helped her collect all her unpaid wages through a levy on the business’ bank account.

HOME CARE FACILITY OPERATES AS SWEATSHOP

Four Filipino workers worked 60 hours per week (12 hours a day, 5 days a week) at a care home in Northern California. Their work ranged from dressing and bathing patients to laundry and cooking.

But, they also worked 60 hours of what’s known as “compensable time” – getting up two or three times in the middle of every night to assist patients.

Three workers were each paid a flat monthly fee of $1,500. That breaks down to $5.77/hour for the 60 daytime hours (no overtime) or $2.88/hour when properly including the overnight hours.

This hourly rate was well below the $8/hour minimum wage rate in 2013. The leader was paid $1,600 per month because she had minimal supervisory responsibilities.

One day, the owners told the workers their jobs would end in a mere 10 days because they sold the care home and were moving abroad.

To be left without the barest thread of security from this sweatshop – after giving years of dedication in exchange for paltry wages – was the last straw. The workers sought help from the Filipino Community Center. A couple days later, an inspector from the Office of Labor Standard Enforcement of San Francisco visited the worksite.

The owner admitted to all the hours worked and unpaid wages. Despite this admission, the clock was running out for these workers because the care home was already in escrow to be sold. We got involved because of our expertise in commercial law.

Yet, it was a stroke of unexpected luck resolved this case: The initial buyer walked away, and the employers couldn’t find a buyer. Desperate, unable to sell and fearing that our redoubtable team would unearth a less-than-arms-length sales transaction, the owners settled.

Together, the four workers received over a quarter million dollars!

BANKRUPTCY TRIAL VICTORY ADVANCES WORKERS’ RIGHTS

In 2013, Luis was hired to undertake various tasks at several job sites for a California Contractor. At the time, the Contractor’s primary source of income was from one real estate company, for multiple renovation projects.

Unfortunately, within 2 months, Luis wasn’t being paid in full for his work. He went almost 1 month without any pay at all, strung along by the Contractor’s promises.

His complaints to the Contractor were met with claims that the real estate company wasn’t paying him. The Contractor promised to pay Luis as soon as he himself was paid.

Like many diligent employees, Luis believed the Contractor and continued working until, after almost 5 months, he could take it no more. He filed his wage complaint with the California Labor Commissioner.

The Contractor did not deny that Luis was owed wages, but nonetheless sought to avoid paying those wages through bankruptcy. Incredibly, the law normally would allow it.

But, here we argued that the wage claim resulted from fraud: the Contractor hired Luis without the ability or intention to pay him. At trial, we proved the Contractor actually had been paid in full by the real estate company and had lied to Luis to keep him working, even though no more money would be coming in on the project.

Because of this fraud, the judge ruled that bankruptcy did not absolve the Contractor’s responsibility to pay Luis.

The bankruptcy court recognized the rights of Luis in a way that does not come naturally to the bankruptcy system: the court treated Luis’ wage claims at the same level as a credit card company defrauded by a debtor, who borrowed money he knew that he could not and would not ever pay.