SAN FRANCISCO - Victoria Aquino's life has changed dramatically because she and others are fighting back against the wage theft that is rampant among low-wage workers, and especially among young workers, immigrant workers and workers of color.
On the job as many as 13 to 16 hours a day, on call 24 hours but paid for just 8, Aquino used to be the sole caregiver for half a dozen patients living in a small care home. "I was just like a prisoner," she told low wage workers and their supporters who gathered on the steps of City Hall Nov. 18 to mark the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft and to pledge a stepped-up struggle for just treatment of all workers.
Now, Aquino works just the eight hours she's paid for - though she says her employer still needs to hire more workers - thanks to the struggle she waged with help from the Filipino Community Center, La Raza Centro Legal, and the Women's Employment Rights Clinic at Golden Gate University.
Speakers noted that some form of wage theft affects 68 percent of U.S. low-wage workers, with workers losing, on average, over $2,600 a year or about 15 percent of their annual earnings. It takes different forms among retail workers, caregivers, construction and restaurant workers, day laborers and others. Common forms include not paying minimum wage or overtime, forcing workers to work off the books, misclassifying employees as independent contractors, and not paying them at all.
Speakers also pointed out that wage theft hurts families, too, and creates unfair competition for responsible employers, while stopping it is an important form of economic stimulus, providing working families with money they spend in their communities.
Donna Levitt of San Francisco's Office of Labor Standards Enforcement said her agency has collected about $4 million in back wages for some 2,500 workers since the city's minimum wage law took effect six years ago. "San Francisco is a national model for strong labor laws; we work very hard to be a national model for strong labor law enforcement," she told the crowd.
Arrayed on the City Hall steps, and sharing their stories from the podium, were workers from La Raza Centro Legal's Day Labor Program, the Chinese Progressive Association, Filipino Community Center, Young Workers United, and others making up the recently-formed Progressive Workers Alliance.
Joining them were several San Francisco supervisors and their representatives, as well as speakers from unions in the city, including SEIU and Unite Here!
The Alliance is proposing a Low-Wage Worker Bill of Rights including job creation, fighting wage theft, promoting responsible employers, protecting social services, and equal treatment for all workers.
Actions were also taking place across the country. In Houston, Texas, a "Justice Bus" was slated to stop at local businesses allegedly engaging in wage theft. In Memphis, Tenn., the Workers Interfaith Network planned to fill a shopping cart with items workers can't afford because of wage theft, and stage a dramatization of an employer taking a string of 130 $20 bills from a worker's pocket, representing the average annual amount taken from workers through wage theft.
In El Paso, Texas, the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project was holding a "Worst Employer Awards" to highlight the area's worst violators of workers' rights, while in Albany, N.Y., Make the Road New York planned a press conference in the state capitol to press passage of a state anti-wage-theft law.
During a Nov. 17 press conference, Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and coordinator of the National Day of Action, said wage theft is a national epidemic robbing workers of billions of dollars. "This Thanksgiving, as a nation we are struggling with how to boost the economy," Bobo said. "What better way to stimulate the economy, put more money back into neighborhood businesses, than to assure that workers are paid all their wages?"
More information on Interfaith Worker Justice's campaign against wage theft is available at www.iwj.org.
Photo: PW/Marilyn Bechtel