More and more workers in California have fallen victim to wage theft. In San Diego County alone, an estimated 40,000 people are being exploited, according to prosecutors.
Wage theft is common on construction sites, with workers often being paid cash and under the table. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation as they may not receive pay slips to prove their employment and file taxes.
“These companies, the way they work and keep costs down, are irresponsible practices that involve cash payments and misclassification of workers,” said Javier Santizo, a representative for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters.
NBC 7 Investigates spoke to three construction workers who asked not to be identified. The pseudonyms we use are Alfonso, Ruben and Juan.
“When they come to pay you, you see the hours and it was less than what you did,” said Alfonso. “They tell you, ‘Oh, if you don’t write it like that on paper or something, it doesn’t count.’ OK, and then for the next week you write it on the paper and you go to them and they tell you the same thing, ‘Oh … it doesn’t count either.’ “
Workers said most construction projects in San Diego County involve wage theft. A general contractor in charge of the project will hire subcontractors who will then hire “labor agents”. The job of the labor brokers is to find people to do the actual jobs like plumbing, electrics, and drywall. The recruitment agencies can also decide how the workers are paid.
“I mean, if they pay you cash, it’s just cash,” said Ruben. “It’s under the table, that’s it. They won’t tell you, they won’t give you any W2 forms or anything like that. “
Paying in cash is not illegal – but getting paid under the table. Union officials say cash makes it easier for employment agencies to break the law, and this practice exposes both documented and undocumented workers to the risk of wage theft.
“Even if you have a social security number, right? You also get paid in cash because that’s just the way it is, ”said Santizo. “This is how it works at this company and it has grown so that people who have the right to work here cannot do anything about it.”
Many victims of wage theft are also victims of human trafficking.
“You end up being smuggled across the border,” said Santizo. “So as soon as you are traded, the coyote trades you, he brings you over. This coyote has a second contact who is usually the recruiter who has a warehouse … So when the worker starts his job at the end of his working week, he has to pay to stay in that house and he also has to pay the recruiter to take care of him either used the social security number (number) or just so that he can work the following Monday. “
Santizo says some recruitment agencies are threatening workers with deportation if they complain about wage theft. In some cases, they even threaten to harm the worker’s family in their home country.
Earlier this year, San Diego County’s Office of District Attorney Summer Stephan established a workplace justice department to investigate and prosecute allegations of wage theft. Since March, the unit has received 35 complaints – five of them from construction.
“Employers who cheat on their employees usually commit several levels of crime,” said Stephan. “They not only cheat on their employees … We see that they have committed wage tax fraud, or they have committed wage tax fraud, they have committed others, including human trafficking violations.”
Wage theft doesn’t just affect workers. California loses an estimated $ 10 million annually to this type of fraud, according to Stephen’s office.
“This leaves your first responders, your schools, your courthouses, your highways, your public work branches not properly financed because the taxes do not come into the community,” said Santizo.
The county is currently working on a new Labor Standards and Enforcement Office to help workers find their way around filing complaints.
The aim is to ensure that workers not only get their deserved wages, but also give them the opportunity to build better lives for themselves.
“If you pay us in cash, the disadvantage is that we don’t pay taxes, can’t get a line of credit or even move houses,” said Ruben. “I mean, it’s so hard for us to get cash not to try not to use our credit or our taxes for some future benefit I think.”
Stephan says recruiters who break the rules will also affect legitimate companies by getting them excluded from the bidding process.
“The honest employers who pay a fair wage, they pay everything that is required by law, they have their employees on the payroll, then they cannot compete for the jobs,” said Stephan.
California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a new law this week strengthening wage theft laws by punishing it as “grave theft.”
All victims of wage theft are encouraged to report the incident to the district office Unity for workplace justice. You don’t need to disclose your immigration status to file a report.