An increasing number of Californian workers are victims of wage theft. An estimated 40,000 people are being exploited in San Diego County alone, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Wage theft typically occurs on construction sites, with workers often paid in cash and under the table. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation, as they may not receive pay stubs to prove their employment and file their taxes.
“These companies, the way they operate and to reduce costs, is that they have irresponsible practices that include cash payments and misclassification of workers,” said Javier Santizo, representative of the Regional Council of Carpenters from the Southwest.
NBC 7 Investigates spoke to three construction workers who asked not to be identified. The pseudonyms we use for them are Alfonso, Ruben and Juan.
âWhen they come to pay you, you see the hours and it was less than the hours you did,â Alfonso said. “They say to you ‘Oh, if you don’t write it like on a piece of paper or something like that, that doesn’t count.’ OK, and then you, like, the next week, you write it down on the paper and go over to them and they say the same thing to you, ‘Ohâ¦ that doesn’t count too.’ “
Workers said wage theft occurs in the vast majority of construction projects in San Diego County. A general contractor in charge of the project will hire sub-contractors, who will then hire “labor brokers”. The job of labor brokers is to find people to do the actual work, such as plumbing, electrical, and drywall. Labor brokers also decide how to pay workers.
âI mean when they pay you cash, it’s just money,â Ruben said. âIt’s under the table, that’s all. They don’t tell you, they don’t give you W2 forms or anything like that.
Paying cash is not illegal, but getting paid under the table is. Union representatives say cash makes it easier for labor brokers to break the law and that the practice puts undocumented and undocumented workers at risk of wage theft.
“Even if you have a Social Security (number), don’t you?” You’re also going to get paid in cash because that’s how it is, âSantizo said. âIn this company, this is how it works and it has grown to such an extent that the people who are legally entitled to work here cannot do anything about it.
Many victims of wage theft are also victims of labor trafficking.
âYou end up being trafficked across the border,â Santizo said. âSo once you get trafficked, you get trafficked by the coyote, he brings you. This coyote has a second point of contact which is normally the labor broker who has a hiding place … So once the worker starts his job, at the end of his work week, he has to pay for the stay in this house and he also has to pay the labor broker either to use the social security (number) or simply so that he can work the following Monday.
Santizo says some labor brokers will threaten workers with eviction if they complain of wage theft. In some cases, they even threaten to harm the worker’s family in their home country.
Earlier this year, the office of San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan launched a Workplace Justice Unit to investigate and prosecute pay theft complaints. Since March, the unit has received 35 complaints, five of which are from construction.
âEmployers who cheat on their employees typically commit multiple levels of crime,â Stephan said. âThey don’t just cheat on their employeesâ¦ We see that they have committed tax evasion or that they have committed fraud on workers’ wages, they have committed others, going as far as traffic violations. labor.”
The theft of wages does not only have an impact on workers. According to Stephan’s office, it is estimated that California loses nearly $ 10 million a year due to this type of fraud.
âSo that leaves your first responders, your schools, your courthouses, your highways, your public works branches not properly funded because the taxes don’t go into the community,â Santizo said.
The county is currently working on a new labor standards and enforcement office, which will help workers navigate the complaints process.
The aim is to ensure that workers not only receive the wages they have earned, but also to give them the opportunity to build a better life for themselves.
âWhen they pay us in cash, the downside, or you know, the downside is that we aren’t able to do taxes or get a line of credit or even change apartments,â said Ruben. “I mean it’s so hard for us to get the money, not to try, not to use our credit or our taxes for some future benefit, I guess.”
Stephan says labor brokers who break the rules also have an impact on legitimate businesses because they are excluded from the bidding process.
âHonest employers who pay fair wages, they pay whatever is legally required, they have their employees on the payroll, so they can’t compete for the jobs,â Stephan said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week enacted a new bill to strengthen wage theft laws by making it punishable by “grand theft.”
All wage theft victims are encouraged to report the incident to the County Workplace Justice Unit. You do not need to reveal your immigration status to file a report.