On October 5, 2011, Miguel Vasquez, a 44-year-old former cook, went to work at the Italian restaurant he was working at, located in North Los Angeles. As he was prepping and cutting sausages for the pizzas, a knife slipped from one hand and cut his left hand. “At first, because it happened so fast, I did not feel how deep of a cut it was,” Vasquez told CALÓ NEWS. “Minutes later, I began to feel the increasing pain, and that’s when I realized I could actually see my bone.”
Instead of giving Vasquez paid time off or paying for his medical expenses, Vasquez said that his employer and boss screamed at him and disrespected him in front of his co-workers and told him he owed money for bandages and sanitary equipment used for his wound.
“It’s something I do not wish upon anyone,” he said. Vasquez said that he believes that his boss’s alleged discriminatory and abusive behavior was rooted in the fact that Vasquez was a non-English speaking immigrant. “More than anything for being Latino,” Vasquez said.
Unpaid Labor and Discrimination
At the time, Vasquez said that he was being paid less than the minimum wage, not given proper breaks and often receiving his payment late.
When Vasquez landed at a local hospital a few days after the incident, and after he began to notice his hand felt more and more numb, a doctor eased his nerves and worries. “He told me I had a broken tendon and said he would do everything possible to save my hand,” Vasquez said “but he scolded me for not coming in sooner, as he said I could have lost my hand.”
Vasquez explained to him what had happened at work and his boss’s lack of support and treatment. He also confessed he did not have health insurance. He was afraid he would not be able to pay for surgery.
After his surgery and being hospitalized for a few days, Vasquez returned to work at the restaurant. “I had no other choice, and I also wanted to return because he owed me money,” Vasquez said. “Days that I had worked that he had not paid me for, and as money began to be tight, because of the time off that I took, I needed that money.”
But instead of receiving the money that was owed to him, his boss welcomed him by throwing paper plates at his face and accusing him of not cleaning. “That’s when I left outside,” Vasquez said, “and someone who had seen what had happened gave me a flyer for the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles. I did not call right away, but I saved it.”
Homeless and job-less
Days after leaving his job, he was evicted from his home due to unpaid rent. At the time, he used to pay $600 for a single room.
Vasquez found himself homeless. He worked at a succession of places after that, but the pay was not enough. He worked small restaurant and event gigs and as a farmworker, among other.
“I would finish my shift and get on the bus and stay there. No destination at all,” Vazquez described. “Sometimes I slept on the beach.”
Vasquez said that he was homeless for eight months. “At that moment, I felt like all of my dreams of a better future up North had been destroyed,” he said.
Vasquez immigrated to the U.S. when he was 23 years old, along with his brother, who died a few years ago. “My brother was the one who cried with me and told me I had to leave that workplace,” Vasquez said with tears in his eyes.
In 2013, he became a member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC-LA). “I started to be less afraid and started informing myself of my rights, but my hand was always an impediment to being hired for jobs,” Vasquez said.
Months after joining ROC-LA, Vasquez said that he sued his boss and the restaurant. He found out that that restaurant had no insurance. “As an immigrant, I think we are afraid to take legal action because we are often told it will never go in our favor,” Vasquez said. “My former boss said so himself the last time I saw him. ‘Go ahead and sue me, just know I have more rights than you because I’m a citizen’ he told me.”
Vasquez has dealt with what many Latinos and people of color are often victims of: discrimination in the workplace and homelessness in one of the biggest cities in the world.
In the LA region, wage theft drives the risk of housing insecurity and homelessness, especially for people of color, women and immigrants.
Labor Standards Enforcement Paves the Way for a New LA
This is what the Los Angeles Worker Center Network’s (LAWCN) newest publication, a concept paper titled Labor Standards Enforcement Paves the Way for a New LA, is highlighting.
The number of people experiencing homelessness has increased during the past year, according to the 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count report by the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority. The data released in June of this year showed the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased by 9% in Los Angeles County and 10% in the city since 2022.
For LAWCN, the widespread wage theft in Latino and immigrant-driven industries like the garment industry, house cleaning, and restaurants, among others, and the increase in homelessness are closely linked.
“Los Angeles is the homelessness capital of America; it happens to coincide with also being the wage-theft capital of America. Is there a correlation? We certainly think so,” said Armando Gudiño, Executive Director of LAWCN. “Prevalent wage theft is for many the tipping point that forces people to go from living on the edge to living in the streets or being homeless.”
Los Angeles Worker Center Network’s (LAWCN)
LAWCN, which has offices located blocks away from LA’s City Hall, launched in 2017 but has its roots in 2011. The network is driven by a mission to build the power and grow the capacity of local worker centers to organize, educate and advocate for low-wage workers who are often working in industries that are the backbone of the American economy, including car wash, garment, home care, restaurant, retail and warehouse.
The network is made up of nine organizations: CLEAN Carwash Worker Center (CLEAN), Garment Worker Center (GWC), Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), Los Angeles Black Worker Center (LABWC), Pilipino Workers Center (PWC), Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC-LA), Warehouse Worker Resource Center (WWRC), UCLA Labor Center and Bet Tzedek Legal Services.
Gudiño said that each of the organizations that make up the network has independent projects and clients, but that they all work together to help low-wage workers know their rights and access a living wage.
LAWCN focuses on helping each organization build the infrastructure needed to continue their organizing efforts. “Most importantly, what we do is help channel resources, and funding so that they can be used to do the work needed to help low-wage workers,“ Gudiño said.
LAWCN meets once a month through the formation of what they call an executive committee, made up of the directors of the nine different organizations.
The LAWCN works both at the local and state levels. In 2022, the network was victorious in many organizing efforts, including an Amazon worker campaign in their air freight division to win a living wage, increased safety on the job and an end to retaliation. It was their first-ever coordinated labor action. In 2022, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles celebrated the graduation of the 100th student of their Colors Hospitality Opportunities for Workers (CHOW) program, a multi-tiered curriculum designed to prepare participants for living-wage jobs in the restaurant industry. In 2021, LAWCN was also part of the California State Legislature that passed the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 62), making California the first state to require hourly wages for garment workers.
The LAWCN’s “Labor Standards Enforcement Paves the Way for a New LA” concept paper was released in June, detailing how the lowest-income Angelenos lose an estimated 12.5% of their take-home pay to wage theft every year. “In LA County, on a weekly basis, the LAWCN estimates that anywhere between $26-$28 million are being stolen in wages,“ Gudiño told CALÓ NEWS.
Immigrant, non-English speaking employees
“Poverty is the primary driver of homelessness in LA, which is why we cannot simply build ourselves out of the homelessness crisis,” said Tia Koonse, Legal and Policy Manager at the UCLA Labor Center and one of the authors of the paper. “Wage theft significantly depresses income and pushes vulnerable Angelenos to the streets.”
In many places, wage theft is normalized and frowned upon if spoken about. Gudiño said wage theft can happen anywhere, but it is most likely to happen in workplaces where there is a high number of immigrant, non-English speaking employees.
Wage theft can take the form of paying workers less than the legal minimum wage, failing to pay nonexempt employees time and a half for hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week, asking employees to work off the clock before or after their shifts, denying workers their legal meal breaks, confiscating tips from workers and misclassifying employees as independent contractors to pay a wage lower than the legal minimum or to avoid paying overtime, according to the California Labor Commissioner’s Office.
The LAWCN concept paper states that in LA, 88% of workers experience a violation, including 80% who work overtime but do not receive overtime pay, 30% who receive less than the minimum wage and 80% who work through meal and rest breaks.
Speaking out about workplace discrimination, including wage theft, can be a hard and overwhelming decision for many low-income workers. Gudiño said that for these types of workers, looking for resources and taking time off their jobs to file claims can be detrimental. “It’s difficult to navigate the bureaucratic forms of government agencies, especially if you do not speak English, or do not know where to start,“ he said. “If we could go to these workers in the middle of the wage-theft capital of the nation, and provide them with these resources, that would be a game changer.”
Gudiño said that believes this is possible since it is already happening in other counties of California.
Hope for the future
The County of Santa Clara has solidified its relationship with community partners through the creation of the Fair Workplace Collaborative, a well-funded partnership that offers and promotes workers’ rights education and compliance.
Members of the Fair Workplace Collaborative are “deputized” to act on behalf of County officials, and are allowed to conduct education and outreach efforts at work sites.
“OWS should adopt a similar model, which will ensure that workers and employers obtain the necessary information,” the concept paper stated.
The published paper also mentioned a concept called a “new LA,” where as stated in the paper, residents can afford dignified housing, and where high-road employers will play a valued role in the local economy while violators face strict penalties and government agencies cut red tape facing victims of labor violations.
“LA needs housing, a livable wage and robust labor standards enforcement in order to stem the rising tide of homelessness,” Koonse said.
More than shining a light on the reality of wage theft, the paper also had three major policy recommendations for the city of Los Angeles.
The first recommendation is establishing a memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that dictate information-sharing and stop the clock on claims filed between all levels of government, including the Los Angeles Office of Wage Standards, the Los Angeles Civil and Human Rights + Equity Department, the Community Investment for Families Department, the Office of Immigrant Affairs, and the City Attorney, among others.
The second policy recommendation is for the city to contract with community-based organizations to do outreach, educate workers, identify bad employers and assist in ongoing investigations.
The last policy recommendation is to create a pipeline to good jobs and good enforcement. “We propose a workforce development pipeline that prioritizes candidates who participate in workforce readiness programs that target systemically-impacted workers. This will create good quality jobs that pay a living wage in safe and healthy workplaces while ensuring workers have a free and fair choice to organize,” as stated in the concept paper.
The LACWN believes LA cannot address the issue of homelessness without addressing the issue of wage theft. “There is something on the horizon coming to LA: the World Cup and the Olympics. It is imperative that we strengthen the opportunities to protect low-wage workers who will be the backbone of these two big events: hotel workers, restaurant workers, bar workers, or warehouse workers,” Gudiño said.
“Employers benefit from you not knowing your rights,” Vasquez said. “I hope people know there are laws that protect workers from bosses like that. There are laws that protect us regardless of our religion, gender, sex or immigration status. Don’t be scared and seek that help.”