No One Wants to Work for Free

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Roberto, a construction worker, quit the job where he worked for 2 years after his longtime contractor failed to pay him regularly for the work he did.  He struggled to find a new job, and having limited money to support his family, decided to move them into a smaller and cheaper apartment and had to get food from food pantries. Wage theft, or simply stated, the nonpayment of wages for work done, is a rising trend among workers in Nebraska.

Over the last six months, the Heartland Workers Center (HWC) has helped twelve workers who were owed a total of $14,500.  Some, like Roberto, were simply not paid at all for the work he had done, although he was constantly promised that he would be paid.  Others reported being paid with a bad check.  Whereas it appears that the worker gets paid, in the end, there are no funds in the account.

Francisco and Reynaldo, two construction contractors, were paid with bad checks. They couldn’t cash two checks – one for $2,000 for 100 hours of work and another $600 for a small project.  In addition to not getting paid, the bank charged them a $35 fee for each check. As a result, they fell behind on rent and were forced to borrow money.

Other workers reported that employer broke his promise to pay a later day while they kept working “for free.” Most of the workers in construction had suffered from misclassification as subcontractors by the contractors for the purpose of tax withholding, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

In another case, Fernando quit after his employer continued to deduct pay from his check for tools and personal protective equipment from each paycheck, although he had his own tools and fall protection equipment. The company took out $800 in total from his check.

While each case is different, they have one thing in common: Workers are lacking on information about their rights, and the government agencies, federal, state, or county level, that can pressure their employers to fulfill their obligation of paying wages for the work done.

The HWC works to listen to the case and direct them to the right government agency – the Nebraska Department of Labor, the Wage and Hour Division, or the Bad Checks Division, or an attorney.  And while this may or may not help the worker get his /her money back, we need to begin asking ourselves why does this continue to happen?  Because when workers are not paid, it impacts workers, their families, and the larger community – often for the long-term.  No one wants to work for free.