This photo essay documents the toll of the fight for workers who have made wage theft claims in California.
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Unpaid overtime. Working through meal breaks. Stolen tips. Being told to show up to work at one time but not clock in until an hour later.
For decades California has tried to crack down on wage theft, the failure of employers to pay their workers what they’re legally owed.
It’s a problem that mostly affects the state’s most vulnerable workers — those earning low wages, who often are immigrants and people of color.
Experts say these vulnerable workers often don’t report wage violations to the government, making it hard to measure the true scale of the problem in California. In 2021, about 19,000 workers filed unpaid wage claims in the state for a total of more than $330 million. A state report estimates the average worker claims about $10,000.
The state’s labor agency has dedicated resources to issue civil citations to businesses for wage theft in industries such as restaurants, construction, janitorial services, car washes and residential care. Worker advocates praise California officials for their attention to wage theft. California, many advocates and business groups say, has some of the nation’s toughest labor laws, and the labor department that enforces them is one of the few in the country that proactively investigates workplaces for potential violations.
If the state proves an employer intentionally stiffed a worker of more than $900, the wage theft becomes a criminal offense. A growing number of prosecutors in recent years have formed special units to investigate such labor abuses.
California law allows workers alleging wage theft to seek not only back pay but also financial damages and penalties, an acknowledgement that being denied wages when they are due can have other consequences such as late rent payment and financial instability.
Lawmakers in recent years also passed new laws putting more companies on the hook for wage theft and other labor violations — a response to a rise in contracting and subcontracting arrangements that experts say complicate the traditional worker-boss relationship, making it harder to secure back pay for workers.
Despite such progress, the pandemic has exacerbated understaffing and delays at the state agency, and wage theft cases can take years to resolve. Even workers who win claims of unpaid wages aren’t guaranteed to be paid. While many cases settle, CalMatters has found that of the wage claim judgments the state issued against employers in 2017, only one in seven have been paid.
Here are portraits and the stories of some of the workers who’ve made who wage theft claims in California:
John Kerry Coyle
John Kerry Coyle of Cameron Park delivered groceries as an independent contractor in 2021 and says that although he kept detailed records of his deliveries and time worked, the wage case he filed with the state is still pending. “California will back your complaint, you just got to know how to make your complaint heard,” says Coyle. “It takes a lot of work; it took me filing a complaint with the Department of Justice, the EEOC, department of fair employment and housing, office of civil rights (at) health and human services, I went to yelp.com, I went to multiple attorneys. I had to go to my (psychiatrist) to get more medication to help me be able to deal with this shit and help me sleep at night because I was obsessed with not being able to pay my bills and needing to find a job and needing to make money, but yet at the same time not letting these people slide off of doing (this to) me. It caused me a whole lot of stress.”
Eloisa de la Cruz-Torres
Eloisa de la Cruz-Torres is a fast-food worker from Sacramento who reports experiencing wage theft. She has been an outspoken advocate for a recently enacted law creating a state-run council to set labor standards for the restaurant and food sector, and she is active with the workers’ rights organization Fight for 15 Nor Cal. “We worked really hard to pass AB 257. It passed, but there’s corporations that want to overturn it. And they’re doing everything they can … They’re going to pay a lot of money to overturn it, instead of giving that money to the workers. That’s not fair. They should give that money to the workers that they have stolen a lot from.” She said she hopes more workers will share their stories about experiences with wage theft.
Keith E. Brown
Keith E. Brown, from Tracy, California, has worked in the security industry for years and has filed claims stating he lost income due to wage theft. He said he believes the claims process with the labor commissioner has slowed due to increased caseloads and pandemic-related office closures, but that he has found the Labor Commissioner’s office to be helpful in recovering his wages. Brown has filed multiple claims to recover remaining stolen wages, with several cases still in process. “You have to be patient, because the system takes time. But time is on your side because your wages have already been stolen, so you can’t be any worse off … The Labor Commission is very helpful and very attuned with taking the complaints of the average citizen and giving them an opportunity in the wage claim forum to address their issues.”
After moving to Santa Ana from Guerrero, Mexico 24 years ago, Andrea Pedroza began working as a janitor cleaning commercial buildings throughout Orange County. Pedroza and her husband, Victor, who worked for the same employer, got legal help with their wage complaints from a janitorial worker support organization, and in January the state held a hearing. They reached a settlement with their former employer in September. “I fell into such a great depression that I would cry every day, because we didn’t have money for rent, bills or food. So many times I would say to myself, ‘no, this situation has no solution. I don’t think we’re going to win … I don’t know how far it will go. I don’t know how we’re going to end up.’ It was a major struggle for me.”
Like his wife, Andrea, Victor Pedroza came to the United States from Mexico 24 years ago in search of a better future and soon after arriving began cleaning commercial buildings throughout Orange County. Pedroza says he didn’t know that the United States’ labor laws were different from those back home in Mexico — and therefore he didn’t think to question it when the pay was below California’s minimum wage. “Well, the challenges were that we turned to several lawyers, to people, and they said that we did not have evidence to say it was wage theft. In other words, they are people who are not familiar with the labor laws here in California, but thank God that we found this organization MCTF (Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund) that helped us and opened the doors for us. And we presented our case and then they told us, “Bring all the evidence you have,” and we brought our check stubs, everything we could collect and we showed them and (the advocacy organization) actually told us that there was wage theft.”
This professional in the electric car industry is seeking restitution for what she contends were three months of unpaid wages. She asked to withhold her name because she fears retribution while she is still seeking work. In telling her story, she emphasized that wage theft can happen to employees in all industries and career levels. She hopes to help drive new legislation and oversight of wage theft specifically for companies that benefit from electric vehicle grant money in California. She said she has experienced wage disputes in software and nonprofit work. “People think that wage theft happens mostly to low-wage earners in the restaurant industry, or car washes, or construction sites or day laborers. And that’s just not the case. This is my third experience of wage theft in my career, or at least wage theft that I have attempted to complain about with the (Division of Labor Standards Enforcement). And what I would like people to understand is that this is a very long process that hurts people at all levels. It is a soul-sucking process to pursue a wage theft claim. It is difficult to find legal help. Even my claim, valued at $75,000, is not attractive enough for an attorney to take this on as a case.
As a janitor in the Financial District in San Francisco, Mayra Perez says she regularly worked eight-hour days but was routinely paid for only five hours of work. An immigrant from El Salvador, Perez claims her employer owed her for unpaid hours, untaken breaks, vacation, and out-of-pocket expenses from years of work before she had to take leave to undergo surgery in early 2020. With the support of a worker center in San Francisco, Perez filed a claim with the state but ultimately settled with her former employer for $20,000 after her case dragged on for more than two years. Perez asked to remain unidentifiable in photos to protect her family in El Salvador from the threat of kidnapping or extortion by gangs there. “When there is wage theft at a job it affects your self-esteem, because it’s really stressful. I think it also impacts families, because sometimes employers don’t know that we also have a lot of family behind us — my children, my family in my country, my family that’s here. Sometimes we are the bread-winners for our homes – and they do not stop to think that by stealing wages, they are contributing so that society continues to live in poverty.”
This portrait project was produced by CalMatters and CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Contributors include Denise Amos, Miguel Gutierrez Jr., Alejandro Lazo and Martin do Nascimento of CalMatters, and Jenny Jacklin-Stratton and Mabel Jimenez of CatchLight.
If your paycheck isn’t right, the state or federal government could help, but it may take some research, records and patience on your part.
Five years after workers win wage theft claims, state records show only 1 in 7 were paid their judgments in full. Some companies appealed or ignored court judgments.
The state said the case against Playa Vista would be the largest wage theft payout by a California car wash. Years later Antonio Dominguez and dozens of other car washers have yet to see any of their unpaid wages.