One Tuesday afternoon in June, Humberto was pulling old wires across the walls of a suburban college in Birmingham, Alabama, when his cell phone rang.
Humberto’s wife, who had just returned from his weekly trip to the grocery store, was online. “Our story is negative,” she said.
The 45-year-old electrician, who spoke on condition of being identified by his middle name because he is undocumented, had worked 10 hours a day, six days a week as part of a renovation project of $ 200 million. This is how he learned that his paycheck for $ 1,250 had rebounded.
So began Humberto’s unsuccessful quest to get a day’s honest pay for a day of honest work – a struggle familiar to many other victims of wage theft who fight for months or years for the sake of it. money owed to them.
Companies that rely on low-wage workers are more likely to be caught cheating on their employees, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of minimum wage and overtime violations from the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2019 alone, the agency cited around 8,500 employers for taking an estimated $ 287 million from workers.
The entrepreneur who hired Humberto, Mata Electric, honored the check about a week after it bounced back, he said, but it was just the first of several bounced paychecks that would push his family of four people deep in debt. By the time he left his post in August, Humberto said, the contractor owed him more than $ 3,500 for five weeks of work.
Humberto was forced to borrow $ 500 from his mother-in-law in Honduras to pay the rent. His mother, who works at Krispy Kreme, also loaned him money.
He quickly began to wonder if his colleagues were also being cheated.
“It’s not something workers like to talk about. It’s embarrassing, ”he said. “You basically admit that you let someone take advantage of you.”
Finally, he asked them. Some colleagues said they had not been paid for weeks; others in more than a month.
Humberto and a group of his colleagues decided to confront their supervisor, Tina Sharpe, after lunch one day in August. One of the younger workers translated.
“We’re really, really crazy. You owe us a lot of paychecks, ”Humberto told him.
Sharpe responded calmly, he said, and told them the company was in financial trouble. He said she promised the money was coming and begged them to keep working. Humberto did it, for a few more weeks. When two more paychecks rebounded, he said, he started looking for another job.
He never got his last paycheck, he said.
Through a lawyer, Sharpe declined to comment except to deny any wrongdoing and to challenge the public integrity’s use of the term “salary theft.”
Isaac Guazo, an economic justice organizer at the nonprofit Adelante Alabama Worker Center, urged Humberto and his colleagues to sue Mata Electric.
The idea frightened Humberto. He had heard stories of immigration officials waiting in courthouses to detain undocumented immigrants. Some of his colleagues, who are also undocumented, have backed down. About a dozen, including Humberto, have decided to go ahead.
Their lawyer filed the documents in Federal Court in early December. There was just one problem: They couldn’t find the co-owner of the business, Erick Mata, to serve him the documents. They had 120 days to do so. After that, the court summons expired and a judge could dismiss the case.
On February 19, a process server tracked down Sharpe at one of Mata’s homes in Birmingham and handed him a summons and another for Mata. She and Mata, both named in the lawsuit as defendants and co-owners of the company, have not filed a response to the workers’ allegations.
No one answered Public Integrity’s phone calls to the number listed at Mata’s address. Public Integrity also sent certified letters to four addresses requesting comment, but he did not respond.
Public records show Mata started having financial problems as early as 2017, when the IRS filed a tax lien against him for $ 28,596 in unpaid taxes. The state of Alabama has filed three tax liens against Mata since 2018. In September and October, he defaulted on his mortgage, according to records. We don’t know where he lives now.
In March, Sharpe filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which could make it harder for Humberto and his colleagues to get their money. If Humberto is successful, he already knows what he is going to spend.
“I really, really need to pay my mother-in-law back,” he said. “And my mother.”
This story is a collaboration between the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Washington.
Joe Yerardi, public integrity data reporter, contributed to this article. Alexia Fernández Campbell is a senior public integrity reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AlexiaCampbell.
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