Employers owe American workers billions of dollars in unpaid wages each year, as much as $50 billion in 2016, according to estimates from the progressive Economic Policy Institute.
Despite the prevalence of wage theft, workers face an uphill battle when they go up against employers.
Even when workers can prove they haven’t been paid for their work, getting their money back is a painstaking and often unsuccessful process.
In late 2017, Maria Soto, a legal resident living in Houston, didn’t receive adequate payment after working at a taco truck. And she’s still pursuing actions to get her money.
Soto went to the community advocacy group Faith and Justice Worker Center for help.
Last summer, advocates with the worker center started a dialogue with the taco truck owner, who refused to pay Soto.
After numerous calls, arrangements were made to meet at the worker center for payment negotiations.
“We made an agreement that she was going to come here. I came two times to the Faith and Justice Worker Center because supposedly she was going to come to pay here and she never came,” Soto said in Spanish.
Eight months later, Soto took her case to a local justice of the peace, who ruled in her favor saying she’s owed $1,600 in back wages.
But she still hasn't seen a dime.
“(I felt) frustrated, and at the same time afraid,” she said, afraid that she might not get her money.
Marianela Acuña Arreaza is all too familiar with stories like this. She directs the Faith and Justice Worker Center, a non-profit that works with low-wage Latino immigrant workers.
"For this year, 100% of the cases that we have taken to both the Texas Workforce Commission as well as justice of the peace courts here in the city, we have won, and we have recovered zero dollars," said Acuña Arreaza.
In Texas, justices of the peace don't have direct enforcement power in wage cases, though their rulings can be used to take further steps to seek payment.
Losing that money is a blow to families on a tight budget. Over the last year, the average wage theft claim reported to the worker's center has been about $3,300, close to 22% of the annual income for someone earning minimum wage. And the problem isn't just in Houston.
"We believe that what we report is the very tip of the iceberg," said Acuña Arreaza.
The Economic Policy Institute found that in the 10 biggest states almost one in five low-wage workers experience wage theft each year. Employers steal from them by paying less than the required minimum wage.
"In minimum-wage violations alone, employers are pocketing about $15 billion annually from low-wage workers," said David Cooper, the institute's senior economic analyst.
That $15 billion doesn't take into account unpaid overtime and other forms of wage theft.
Cooper said the amount of money owed to workers annually because of wage theft is comparable to the combined value of all property crime in a year.
Who is vulnerable to wage theft?
Cooper said while wage theft affects all types of workers, women, people of color and other minorities deal with it the most.
"We found that workers who were non-citizens experienced minimum-wage violations at almost twice the rate of citizen workers," he said.
That's why the Faith and Justice Worker Center in Houston has bilingual outreach and education. They're training workers on how to make a case for themselves. Employees learn how to keep journals to record hours worked, write down employer information and record agreed-upon wages.
If wage theft happens to you:
In Houston, there are a few different avenues a victim of wage theft can take to seek justice. Labor advocates recommend taking note of as many details of employment as possible and reaching out quickly if wages are being stolen.
- Workers Defense Project – (832) 998-0564
- Equal Justice Center – (800) 853-4028
- Faith and Justice Worker Center (Fe y Justicia Worker Center) – (713) 862-8222
- Houston Volunteer Lawyers – (713) 228-0732