Wage Theft: Widespread but Hard to Prosecute

It’s nine in the morning, but the women standing at the intersection of Marcy Avenue and Division Avenue, about 30 of them, have been at work for hours. A few women engage in conversation; others keep to themselves, choosing to listen to the music in their earbuds over small talk. But, when a light blue minivan drives up to their corner, nearly all the women look in that direction.

The man in the vehicle calls out to a woman wearing a long, gray coat. After about one minute of conversation, he slides open his back door and she gets in. As they drive off, the others resume their conversations. One woman, noticeably frustrated, can be overheard in Spanish saying, “All day and no work. This is not even worth the Metro Card.”

Two women wait patiently for a work opportunity at Marcy Avenue and Division Avenue in Williamsburg. (Credit: Marybel Gonzalez)

Two women wait patiently for a work opportunity at Marcy Avenue and Division Avenue. (Marybel Gonzalez)

The women standing at this intersection are hired under the table by companies and individuals to do housecleaning work. Many, because they are undocumented, rely on this informal work environment as a source of income. The work conditions are precarious: Work is uncertain and sometimes underpaid (women charge around $40 a day for their cleaning services). But even more, the female workers run the risk of not getting paid for their work at all—an illegal practice known as wage theft, which has become a rampant statewide pattern.

Since 2010, about 2.1 million people in New York have been robbed of a cumulative $3.2 billion in wages, according to a report by The Center for Popular Democracy, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on policy and immigrant rights. The numbers include instances when an employer violates minimum wage laws, refuses to pay workers overtime, or when workers are coerced or forced to work off the clock.

“Employers rarely get prosecuted for wage theft,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a Brooklyn-based worker’s rights center. “Stealing wages is not penalized like other crimes. This is a systemic issue that has to change.”

Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker's Justice Project led the protest agains wage theft. (Credit: Marybel Gonzalez)

Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, led a protest. (Marybel Gonzalez)


And while some wage theft cases may make their way to the courts, collection can prove difficult. Employers facing court ordered judgments might find ways to evade the law. The accused sometimes close their business, change their company’s name, or transfer money out of their bank accounts to avoid garnishment, according to the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, a nonprofit law center which serves low-income communities and is based in New York City.

Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable communities to wage theft. Many fear retaliation if their cases are brought to the legal system, explained Gonzalo Mercado, director of the Staten Island Job Center.

“A lot of the problem is that these undocumented workers don’t know their rights or don’t even realize they can access resources to help them retrieve their wages,” Mercado said. “Most of them are paid in cash and they think they don’t have the means to prove their work hours.

“I see these cases every day,” he added.

One recent case of reported wage theft has gained attention in Brooklyn. Last summer, Samuel Just, owner of Just Clean cleaning company, hired a group of ten workers at the intersection in Williamsburg. After completing the cleaning services throughout Brooklyn, the workers alleged they were not paid and sought the help of the Worker’s Justice Project, which subsequently filed a complaint with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. While most of the workers withdrew their petition for retribution, two women, Gladys Trujillo and Rosa Palaquibay, agreed to pursue charges against Just.

Last week, the Worker’s Justice Project, along with community advocates, gathered at the Brooklyn courthouse to reclaim the unpaid wages due to Trujillo and Palaquibay as well as to protest wage theft and unsafe work conditions, issues they said are increasingly prevalent in their communities.

“We are here to protest on behalf of not only for Rosa and Gladys, but also for hundreds of domestic workers whose jobs are not protected,” said the Project’s executive director, Guallpa.

Just was arrested last August and released on bail, according to court documents. Charges included failure to pay wages and scheme to defraud. The investigation remains ongoing. Just declined to comment on the case.

“This process has been long, much longer that we had expected,” said Diana Marin, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center, who is representing Palaquibay’s case. “It takes time and energy. It’s difficult for these women to recant their experiences over and over again and not see much progress.”

Rosa Palaquibay is one of the domestic workers alleging wage theft against Just Clean.

Rosa Palaquibay is one of the domestic workers alleging wage theft against Just Clean. (Marybel Gonzalez)

Trujillo and Palaquibay are not the only women who are going through this ordeal. Toña, who asked that her last name not be used due to her undocumented status, said she also experienced wage theft when she started working at the Williamsburg intersection a year ago. She was hired to clean the home of a local resident. At first, Toña was paid in full for her services. But after several work days, the resident refused to pay Toña.

“After two weeks, she started paying half of what we had agreed,” said Toña. “She told me she would pay me later. I trusted her, so I thought she would, but that didn’t end up happening. Eventually she just stopped paying me at all.” When Toña confronted her employer, she was kicked out of the home.

“The woman threatened to call the cops on me and get me deported,” said Toña. “I had just arrived to the states and I was scared. I didn’t know any better, so I took my things and left.”

While many of these cases may be difficult to prove in court, some workers have been able to reclaim their unpaid wages. Take Oscar Lezama, a Staten Island resident who was denied overtime and travel time pay by his employer, a kitchen renovation company based in New Jersey. When he approached the company owner to claim his wages—totaling about $1,000—he was fired the next day.

“He wanted me to sign a blank document and I refused,” said Lezama. “He was upset that I didn’t do what he wanted.”

Oscar Lezama, a Staten Island resident, reclaimed his wages successfully after his former employer initially refused to pay him overtime pay. (Credit: Marybel Gonzalez)

Oscar Lezama, a Staten Island resident, successfully reclaimed his wages after his former employer refused to pay him overtime. (Marybel Gonzalez)

Lezama turned to the The Staten Island Job Center for legal assistance. Through negotiations with the employer, Lezama was paid his wages the following week.

“We know that not all cases are success stories,” said the job center’s Mercado. “Some cases delay and others never get resolved. But when employers see that the community is organizing, that is when they react.”

Meanwhile, at least one case may soon see its day in court. Trujillo and Palaquibay’s criminal court case has been rescheduled for later this month.

“This case is important to us,” said Guallpa. “We want to send a message to the world: Domestic workers deserve dignity and respect.”