It’s been almost five years since construction worker Efren Resendiz labored for an Escondido, Calif., construction company that didn’t pay him his full amount owed: $9,500.
Resendiz, a documented Mexican immigrant, filed a claim with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, was granted a final judgment that was a fraction of what he was due, and still, no money came his way. Other workers he knows who are owed money by the same construction company haven’t been paid either.
Wage theft—which includes not paying promised wages, not paying overtime, and not paying the minimum wage—is alarmingly widespread in California and disproportionately affects immigrant workers and low-wage earners. Hence the huge push from labor advocacy groups in support of a proposed California state law that will be heard Thursday.
Authored by Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, D–Long Beach, the bill would allow stiffed workers to place a temporary hold, or lien, on their employers' property, or the property worked on, for the amount owed until they can prove their claims in court.
That way, when wage claims are won, they can actually be collected and enforced instead of languishing in a purgatory similar to what Resendiz has experienced.
“It makes me feel very bad, because I’m working for my family, for rent, for food. You try all these means, and it makes you feel frustrated,” Resendiz told TakePart through an interpreter. “There are so many construction companies and bosses who have abused their workers in this way, by not paying them. I know of cases when workers insist on being paid, and the bosses call on the U.S. Border Patrol.”
Bullying low-wage workers into taking whatever is given to them, especially if those workers are afraid of being deported, is nothing new, and the same goes for unpaid back wages.
More than 83 percent of workers in California are unable to hold employers accountable and recover their unpaid wages after receiving a legal judgment in their favor, according to UCLA Labor Center attorney Tia Koonse. Koonse coauthored the 2013 study Hollow Victories: The Crisis in Collecting Unpaid Wages for California’s Workers.
Of the 750,000 low-wage earners in Los Angeles County alone, Koonse says, 80 percent are foreign-born, both documented and undocumented; unauthorized foreign-born workers experience wage theft three times more often than their authorized foreign-born counterparts. According to the study, 60 percent of employers found liable for unpaid wages end up dissolving, suspending, canceling, or forfeiting their businesses, making wage collection even more difficult.
“Clearly the system for workers to collect back wages is broken,” she says. “It’s a mix of the shadiest employers and employers having a hard time, so they bilk their employees.”
The solution is for workers to file a lien at the beginning of their claim process so they can collect, adds Koonse. In Wisconsin, 80 percent of claims in which wage liens were used to recover unpaid wages resulted in some payment of unpaid wages to the workers, according to the study.
While dozens of business groups, such as the California Chamber of Commerce, are slamming the anti–wage theft bill as a “job killer” and destroyer of commercial and personal real estate, Koonse says opposition is really just confusion over the term “lien.”
“A lien is passive. It doesn’t sell or transfer the property. The worker has to prove the claim before money is paid,” says Koonse. “I am surprised at the level of hysteria on the part of the business community. There’s a fear this will make it harder for businesses to get credit or transfer assets lawfully. There’s a basic unwillingness on their part to consider workers as debtors, like a bank that holds a mortgage. Why would workers be a less worthy debtor than a bank?”