"It doesn't add up" - Profiles of Ten NC Workers Who Experienced Wage Theft
When Sarah was offered a job at her son’s daycare, she jumped at the chance. Having recently received a degree in child development, she had been searching for a job in her field, and this position would let her spend her days closer to her son. Looking back on that time, Sarah remembered thinking, “It’s a job and I get to be with my son… What could go wrong?”
When she was hired, Sarah didn’t know the daycare was extremely understaffed and that she would be asked to care for 27 children aged 3 to 12 for hours at a time. She could not have imagined that due to the understaffing, bathroom breaks for teachers would be a rarity. “There is no one to relieve us because everyone’s classrooms are at capacity, so you can’t leave the classroom for two minutes to go to the bathroom,” she said. Six teachers in six classrooms at the daycare had left within the preceding year.
On top of the poor working conditions, Sarah started noticing that hours were missing from her paycheck. A full day of training was uncompensated, early-morning hours spent getting her classroom ready were not counted, and curriculum planning was considered “volunteer time.”
When she asked her supervisor about the missing hours, she was told that these tasks were expected but did not constitute paid time. Sarah said, “Coming in early to make sure that my classroom is set up is a requirement, which makes sense, except that you are not getting paid for that time.”
Curriculum planning was also expected to be done on teachers’ own time. “[We] are expected to do it on our lunch break or before work or after work or during nap time—but that’s when we are required to be cleaning, filling out daily forms, dealing with bathroom breaks,” Sarah said. “There is no time to work on the curriculum. … When I go home at the end of the day, I’m still expected to be working on a volunteer basis.”
Sarah stated that every teacher at her child-care center felt powerless. “It’s easy to lose you because you’re replaceable,” she said. Out of all the participants, Sarah was the only one who quit her job after confronting her employer and seeing nothing change. It was a difficult choice—not because of the working conditions or pay, but because she genuinely cared about the children with whom she worked.
It’s just really hard to look at one of those kids, especially, and there’s always one who’s going to do something so sweet and loving and right when you’re just about to freak out … then they’re like … “Let me show you something, let me show you this picture, this is me and you on the school bus.” I’m like, “Oh, okay, I’ll stay. We’ll do this for one more day.”
But Sarah had been brought to tears on multiple occasions because of poor working conditions—being in charge of three times as many children as allowed by law, making do with deficient supplies, often working with no bathroom breaks, and, finally, not getting paid. “You’re just trying to get through every single day, and you look at your paycheck, and you’re like, crap, this is all I made? It’s not worth it.” She felt fortunate she had a college degree and the income from her husband’s full-time job, which were enough to cushion her when she finally resigned.
It was Freddy’s first time working in the fields, pulling cilantro from dawn to dusk. He had worked at restaurants and call centers previously but took this job for the promise of work and pay. What he found were difficult working conditions, isolation, and ultimately wage theft.
Pulling cilantro was hard work—“You gotta dig them out of the earth”—especially working all day, every day. “You work from six to six, sun up to sun down every day,” Freddy said.
Freddy soon discovered that the promised pay of $11 per hour was unachievable through a piece rate pay scale: “Whatever you pick, that’s the amount you get.” When asked how long it would take to pick the 1,000 plants per box that would earn a worker $11 per hour, Freddy talked about the difficulty of working quickly enough to pick that many plants.
…that’s honestly, that’s slavery, man. … You really have to be <snaps fingers> quick, quick, quick because if you’re not, then you don’t balance out the hours. [The foreman was] like, “whatever boxes you fill, that’s what you get.”
On top of making less than minimum wage, Freddy did not receive his final paycheck. He was told he was fired and then never got paid. He and his co-workers complained to their employer, who told them to leave. “Basically, he just, pretty much said, ‘You know what? You guys are fired and … you guys need to leave.”
Freddy was the only one able to successfully seek representation to challenge the wage theft, but he did not get the money owed him.
Francesca remembered feeling deceived and frightened about how she would make ends meet when her boss refused to pay her a full week’s wages and avoided her phone calls and requests to be paid. She was unaware that she could report the theft, unaware that the theft was legally actionable, and unaware that she had a legal right to the past wages earned. Francesca believed her theft was simply an unfair fact of working life in North Carolina.
Before her employer stole her wages, she held three jobs—she worked at a fast food restaurant, as a daytime caregiver for a young baby, and as a housecleaner for a cleaning service company. Francesca heard about job opportunities through her community. “We’re always communicating … in the community, we help each other look and find jobs.” She also went directly to restaurants or hotels to ask for work applications. Francesca found her housecleaning position through a friend at the fast food restaurant where she worked.
For about three months, Francesca worked steadily as a housecleaner for her employer. One Friday, her boss called her to tell her she was not needed the following week. “But he hadn’t paid me for that week, and I thought he would pay me when he called me again,” Francesca recalled. Many unsuccessful attempts to contact him followed.
She sought assistance at a community organization, which made attempts on her behalf, but three months went by without any response. She eventually ran into her employer while depositing a paycheck from another job. He agreed to pay her with money he had stored in his truck, but again, Francesca waited in vain for him to return.
The next time Francesca ran into him, the situation had changed. Her former supervisor now accused her of theft. He said,
There was a robbery in the houses we were cleaning. They stole jewelry and many other things, even a computer was lost, he said. So the woman called the police, they sent a report, and your name is in the report with the police, because it could have only been you or the person who followed after you.
The accusation was the final straw, and Francesca sought legal advice. For $50, a lawyer sent the employer a letter, which ultimately did nothing to further her attempts. When thinking back on her wage theft experience, Francesca felt a lot of fear. She was an immigrant without proper documentation, so she felt threatened and concerned that her employer would report her. She explained that people without papers are afraid and don’t have a way to defend themselves.
Natalia cleaned residential homes for a cleaning company. Though she had no formal occupational training, she worked at her current job long enough to achieve the title of team captain. In spite of her seven years of dedication to the cleaning company, she experienced several forms of wage theft. A few times in the last year, Natalia’s bosses failed to pay her on time. In other instances, the employer paid Natalia less than what she was promised by changing the payment terms.
Natalia also experienced wage theft in the form of illegal deductions. When driving from home to home during the working day, using one of the employees’ personal vehicles, the company docked Natalia’s earnings to pay for gasoline. “For me, this is an abuse—a robbery. I shouldn’t be paying for the gasoline.” Relatedly, Natalia is also not paid for the time she spends traveling from house to house on the job. Natalia’s time log will read the full amount of hours, but she is not paid for all of those hours.
When we do our own counting, well I may have not studied much or know math, but I know how to add the numbers, and when we do our own calculations, it doesn’t add up to what she said. It’s always less.
Natalia tried to confront her boss after she noticed deductions for gas without her consent as well as underpayment. She quickly realized that her job was at stake. “I stood up to her one time ... She said, ‘If you don’t like it you can go.’” Natalia explained.
Natalia noted that her boss takes advantage of her and the other housecleaners because of their ethnicity. “[The boss] has a way of [making us feel that] because we’re Hispanic, she yells at us and makes us feel like we’re not as worthy.”
Natalia worried that if she complained further, her employer would fire her. She considered leaving her job but knew it would be difficult to find new employment, and so she felt stuck.
Diego was used to hard work, having worked in a rock mine in Virginia before coming to North Carolina. He now works in landscaping—installing underground pipes for irrigation systems, working with electrical systems for lighting, pruning trees, and maintaining yards—“everything that is landscaping … All of that … it’s what we do.” Despite the hard work and the lack of income stability because much of the work is weather-dependent, he enjoyed his job. His job responsibilities, however, are separate from the challenge of making sure he is paid fairly.
Favorite part of my job? No, well, I like it very much. I do like the work. It’s interesting. I am pleased with the work. Only that there are some things that [I] no longer agree with, you know? To me, that work is good. I like it. But there are some things that... but those are things that have nothing to do with the work.
Diego, who is a Hispanic immigrant, works with both with other immigrant workers and with workers who are citizens. The work, however, is unevenly divided and unevenly paid. The harder work is assigned to the Hispanic workers, and across the board the immigrant workers are paid less. “They pay the Americans well. … But the heavy work and all that, only we do it.”
During our interview, Diego spoke about the dismantling of the expectation of getting paid a rightful wage and the difficulty of having any sense of security about spending money, even for basic needs. Diego was upset when he spoke about paychecks that never arrived. “Because we earn so little, we already make—that is, when we count together the hours, we believe we are going to earn a certain amount.”
Diego was committed to sending money home to his family in Mexico, but with the fluctuating pay, he had difficulties paying for his own basic expenses such as rent and food. Diego noted that he did not vary the amount he sent to his family and simply cut down on his own spending.
When it’s time to get my check and I see that it’s not … what I thought I was going to get. And so since it’s always less … I’ll have to make—I’ll have to spend less here.
Diego can’t talk to his supervisor about the working conditions. He tried to ask for a raise once.
He said “Right now, I can’t give you a raise but if you want to leave, leave.” “Anyhow, like 1,000 Mexicans,” he says, “are at the border coming over here. So there, whatever you want.” With answers like that, how is one going to feel comfortable?
In addition to the threat of losing a job, the supervisor maintains an environment of disrespect and control. He yells at the workers and tries to intimidate them.
…the first thing he does is he stands like this in front of you. …he speaks a little Spanish, mostly vulgarities. … When he wants to shout at me, he wants to shout in my face.
Despite the fact that Diego does not have an employment contract, he is paid by check and receives pay stubs. However, his supervisor has sole control over recording Diego’s hours and regularly undercounts them. Diego explains, “It’s that there isn’t a control of the hours. [The supervisor] takes them down however he wants. … [He has] the power to put down the hours.” And every week, the hours are undercounted.
Carlos, who worked in construction, received only partial payment for his work, was denied his final paycheck at one job, and at another was forced to work overtime—“I would work until 7 or 8 at night”—but was not paid overtime wages. At his most recent job, Carlos waited for a paycheck for his last two weeks of work, but the paycheck never came.
I worked and the job was finished and when it was over, they didn’t pay me. It was two weeks of work... and Christmas began right now recently, I thought if he pays me on Christmas, well it’s Christmas and nothing. New Years? [Much] less. Now, we’re in February. He hasn’t paid me.
It was not an isolated incident. At another job, Carlos’s boss continuously underpaid him. He worked 40 hours per week at $10 an hour but would only receive part of his pay on payday.
So he would come by and give me 380, 300, or 280 and then he would say he would give me the rest another week and I would say ok. And the next week would come and he would only give me—again the same and it would accumulate.
Often, payday was delayed from Friday to Monday or Tuesday, but sometimes payday just didn’t arrive. Carlos explained, “If one doesn’t get paid on Monday or Tuesday, one doesn’t go back anymore. And that’s how it happens.” Carlos tried calling the employer, until he found that calling would do no good.
… and he says “no, I’m coming this day or this day,” and no, that day never comes until the day comes when the tiredness comes from calling so much that it’s better to not seek them—one doesn’t keep calling him by telephone. So yes, it’s lost.
Despite the fact that the amount stolen from him was significant, Carlos felt powerless to remedy these wrongs. He could not confront his employer for fear of retaliation: “Because one is undocumented, one can have more problems than what the other person is going to pay.” He thought about filing a claim but could not afford the filing fee: “$120 and one doesn’t have any money? How can one do that? It can’t be done.” He sought help at a community organization but was unaware of other resources.
Carlos talked about the delicate balance he established in paying for food, transportation, and rent. The expectation of his promised wage used to provide him with the security to spend a little more on food or transportation toward the beginning of the month.
… [I thought] it’s not a problem because [the employer] is going to pay me on this day. On Friday, for example, he’s going to pay me on Friday so I’ll spend it today or I’ll send more money to Mexico. One starts spending it.
Over the last few years, however, Carlos had been taught over and over again that his promised pay would likely not arrive.
So that day comes when you get paid and you confront the employer and say, “Where’s my money?” and you’ll never see him. One never sees him. That’s when you feel very bad.
While Carlos was frustrated about every incident, he said that he eventually came to feel resigned. “The first few times, it feels bad …. After, one has become accustomed,” he said. When asked about the typical wages in his industry, he included the potential of wage theft in his answer: he noted that a typical wage was $15 an hour, “but sometimes they rob you.”
Esther had been living with the same family as a home health aide for the past year and a half. She was the primary caregiver for an 89-year-old woman and was responsible for her well-being from morning to night.“[I] cook, clean, bathe her, do physical therapy work with her, I took her out to get her hair done, everything,” she said.
Esther eventually developed a close relationship with her client, doing tasks for her that her own family would not do. “I made sure her hair was done. I would take her out in my own car just to get her out of the house,” Esther explained. She went the extra mile because she cared for her client and “treated her like she’s [my] mother.”
Esther soon began noticing that the family was having financial difficulties. When the family refused to pay her for an entire month according to her contract, she took them to small claims court. At the same time, the family filed for bankruptcy, and Esther was unable to collect her judgment. Small claims court had “drained the little money [she] had saved,” and hiring a bankruptcy attorney was unaffordable. After three years in the home health field, she found herself without a job, without savings, and without the funds to get paid.
The lack of a single paycheck pushed Karen over the edge into financial instability. She had worked for the same company for 13 years. After noticing that her latest paycheck had not been deposited, she called the office. The human resources representative she spoke to asked if she was sitting down.
I said, “Yes, I’m sitting down.” [The HR representative] said, “The company is closing immediately and we don’t have money for staff.” I said, “How could that be?” She said, “That’s the way it is.”…That was it. So when I got off the phone I hollered and cried. I mean I was just shocked about this because I should have known something before this.
The company was shutting its doors with no prior notice, and all employees were told they were being let go immediately. In addition to losing her job, Karen lost her last two weeks of pay. She had already been living paycheck to paycheck, trying to get out of debt. The loss of a full paycheck meant she would not be able to pay her creditors.
I had planned on that money. And when you make plans like that, and you tell your creditors, “Look, this is the date I’m going to have your money,” and then you don’t have it, it makes you look stupid. And the thing about it, the creditors don’t care whether you have a job. They don’t care. If you tell them that you’re going to pay them on that day, that’s what they want on that date. They’re not sympathetic with you at all. When they want their money, they want their money.
As Karen described the increasing numbers of calls from creditors, she began to cry. “I’ll be 61 in May, and this is the worst I have ever seen myself in a predicament like this,” she said.
Karen was not sure about next steps. Her co-workers told her small claims court was an option, but she was worried about being able to pay for the process. “On that paper it says you have to pay $96. I don’t have that,” she said. She was discouraged and said, “this is the worst I have ever seen myself in a predicament like this. … When I start talking about this, it really gets to my heart.”
Roger worked for four different restaurants over the last six years and finally found a job he loved. His boss treated him well and paid her employees what they were owed. At previous restaurants it was common for kitchen staff to not get paid, for tips to be held, and for everyone’s check to bounce.
I’ve had probably three checks bounce. In the matter of two months, I had about three checks bounce and a couple situations where we were told don’t cash it until—don’t deposit this into your bank until Tuesday of next week, you know, five days. Just like an ongoing process of nobody getting paid.
Roger discussed the uncertainty that is common for those working in restaurants where wage theft is rampant. For Roger, missing wages meant making late payments toward his bills. Even when he did get paid there was always something missing. “There was $15 missing here, $20 missing here. All the time. Like once a week, really.” That $15 or $20 added up. For Roger, it meant late fees on cable bills and car payments and the inability to count on his paycheck.
You can’t buy anything for yourself because you’re not sure if the next paycheck’s going to go in. So I can’t do this because I don’t know if I’ll get paid Monday, and I’m almost out as it is because I got paid late last week and I had to pay all my bills at one time, so now I’m back down to zero. And I can’t do anything because I don’t know what’s going to happen next time paychecks come around. Am I going to have anything then?
At one restaurant, the owner fixed up his house and bought a new car while telling his workers that he had run out of money.
… and then it would be delayed and you’d just get the one paycheck the next week and he’d still owe you the current one and it would just be backed up and backed up. And that’s not their money. That’s the money that the workers are making. What he sells is his money, but what people leave for us is our money and often times, it’s not treated like that.
Roger said that most workers felt like there was “literally nothing you can do besides go to the labor board, which so far has—from my experience, from watching—has done nothing.”
I mean, if you’re not going to get it, most people just let it go and walk away from it instead of raising a big stink about it or trying to get a lawyer. A lot of people just eat the money, which is terrible because then it gets to points like these where it’s becoming so popular to not pay your workers because nobody’s doing anything about it. There’s no repercussions for anything in [the restaurant] industry.
Roger explained that the practice of firing workers for questioning wage theft was not uncommon in his past jobs at restaurants.
I know of a couple workers that had just had enough and would just stay on top of him and stay on top of him and stay on top of him that were fired for just having an “attitude.” They don’t want to pay you, but they don’t want to see the attitude from it because then it messes with their business.
He noted the effect of working in such an environment.
The workers feel replaceable, and you don’t want to work somewhere where you think, where you know that the person at the top knows you’re replaceable. That’s a horrible way to work, especially not getting paid the right way, making next to nothing, trying to support families.
Carrie saw her job as a nursing assistant as helping people and noted that she received satisfaction from her work.
It really touches my heart to hear an elderly say you know, nobody has ever washed my feet this way and really rubbed the lotion in or has never washed my back this way or have really cleaned me thoroughly. … But I do, I like working with people. I like helping people.
But for Carrie, one paycheck, or $1500 for one month’s work, was the difference between struggling to make ends meet and homelessness. Late checks were nothing new for her. She had been working as a live-in home health care provider for the same family for the past six years, and often she was asked to wait a week or two past her promised payday to receive her wages. Most of the time, despite the fact that the late checks were hurting her credit, Carrie was understanding of her employer’s delay. “I went along with that,” she said. “I understand, everybody runs into a financial situation.”
Her employers’ financial situation became more strained, however, and Carrie found herself shopping for her client at the grocery store with insufficient funds. “And they would leave checks there for me to go to the grocery store, but there wouldn’t be no money there. I got tired of going to the store being embarrassed, cart full of food, no money’s there.” Carrie began using her own money to help pay for the food. “I would take money out my check to make sure [my client] ate.”
Finally, in December of last year, no paycheck arrived. “But here comes Christmas, you don’t give me nothing in the month of December,” Carrie remembered. As a live-in home health care provider, she lost not only her paycheck but a place to live when her employment ended. Because she did not receive her last paycheck, she didn't have the money for a deposit and first month's rent on an apartment. While she had enough money to stay at a hotel for a few weeks, ultimately she was forced to move to a local women’s shelter.“ So, I moved out Christmas Eve. The money that I had saved up, I had to pay my car insurance and everything else. So, that’s what led me here.”
She had dreams of one day opening up her own home health agency, but then she found she could no longer physically do her job. While she had tried to work through back pain for years, it finally got to the point where she could no longer perform her job duties. Her agency provided her with no work supports—“You don’t get no benefits. You don’t get no insurance. It’s sad because you stand to injure yourself.”—and she had to stop working.