Remberto Sandoval was glad to have work last spring painting houses in San Francisco for $8 an hour, 12 to 15 hours a day. But after two months of short paychecks, he quit and complained to the state labor commissioner, along with close to 50,000 other workers this year.
Sandoval, who won $1,700 back pay in September, is one of 1,700 of workers in San Francisco alone who allege their bosses underpaid them this year, according to a state labor department spokesman.
Lawyers, labor experts and the labor commissioner’s office say employees in casual work arrangements, especially low-wage, immigrant workers, are frequently not paid money they have earned. And with close to 40 percent of the American workforce in nontraditional jobs such as day labor, temporary work and independent contracting, the trend is of increasing concern.
“It’s an epidemic,” said Chris Newman, legal programs coordinator of the National Day Labor Organizing Network in Los Angeles. “The issue of unpaid wages is commonplace everywhere day laborers work across the country.”
Many workers who fall victim to this kind of exploitation are working illegally, but labor laws are designed to protect all workers and avert unfair competition by employers who might try to cut their costs by exploiting workers.
In San Francisco, the Chinese Progressive Association estimates that 75 percent of the city’s roughly 2,000 garment workers and half of the 14,000 workers in Chinese restaurants are not receiving the minimum wage, said Alex Tom, a community organizer with the group. Most of them are legal immigrants.
“The garment industry is so fragile here, and workers fear losing jobs,” he said. “They’re mostly Chinesemonolingual women, and some are willing to work for as low as $1 an hour.”
The Instituto Laboral de la Raza, a nonprofit legal aid group in the Mission District, which helped Sandoval win his case, receives up to 600 wage and hour complaints a year, according to executive director Sarah Shaker.
Benjamin Powell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Independent Institute in Oakland, said if workers were getting shortchanged, it was the exception, not the rule.
“Over time, markets discipline employers who treat workers poorly,” he said.
A more flexible labor market has advantages for both employer and employee, he said: “The overall economic benefits outweigh the costs.”
Shaker said the complaints came from hotel and restaurant workers, janitors and construction workers, as well as day laborers — who gather on street corners hoping an employer will pick them up for a short-term job.
“The day laborers are the people at the lowest end, but it’s a phenomenon we see across the economy,” said Janice Fine, a professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Employers in many industries — especially low-wage ones — are turning to subcontracting for routine work to keep costs down, meaning fewer workers have an established relationship with their employers, Fine said. The decline in unions and the lack of government enforcement of labor standards means that when these economic pressures lead to unfair treatment in the workplace, employees often lack a voice, she said.
“Imagine you’re a low-wage worker, and you don’t know the laws or your rights, and you’re afraid that if you complain, you’ll be fired,” she said. “In many cases, that’s what happens.”
Newman said recent immigrants were especially at risk because they speak little English and don’t usually understand that federal and state labor laws mandate a minimum wage, breaks and overtime pay.
La Raza Centro Legal, another community legal clinic representing nine of the 12 workers with claims against Abdelmohssen Abozaid, the man who employed Remberto Sandoval, takes on close to 400 such complaints a year, said lawyer Hillary Ronen.
Ronen said she and her colleagues had won more than $180,000 in back wages on behalf of scores of workers since January.
Because the legal process is lengthy and accused employers often disappear, Ronen has taken to staging protests to shame employers into paying up. Two dozen day laborers picketed outside Abozaid’s office on Market Street Wednesday, chanting “El patrón es un ladrón!” — “The boss is a thief!”
Abozaid said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
“All those guys got paid already,” he said. “I don’t know why they are complaining. I don’t owe these people a penny.”
Abozaid said he agreed to the settlement award only to get Sandoval off his back. But he has not yet paid the full settlement.
Sandoval, who has since found a new job and was not at the protest, said the situation had been painful. “I’m not asking him to give me money. It’s just what I earned,” he said. “I need it to live on. My family depends on me.”
by Tyche Hendricks (SF Gate)