Sunday, November 13, 2011

Stories of Wage Theft: Jamal J.

The following narrative is the second in a series of narratives based on true wage theft stories from Memphis, TN. In the summer of 2011, I conducted interviews with four individuals who experienced wage theft (and other labor violations) in order to share their voices and educate the public about the extent of wage theft in the community. Learn more about how to fight wage theft and unfair working conditions at Workers Interfaith Network.

Jamal J.'s* passion is working on cars. A mechanic by trade, he currently works as a technician at a national oil change shop in Memphis, TN. Although he really enjoys his job and appreciates being able to do what he loves, he didn’t appreciate it so much when one day, his manager asked him to work while he was on his lunch break.

The shop where Jamal works is normally staffed with four people at a time, but management will sometimes send two people home if business is slow. When there are only two people left on staff, one of the workers will often take his 30-minute lunch break while the other continues to service cars. While Jamal was working, his manager asked him to clock out and begin his lunch break. As soon as he clocked out, two cars pulled up for an oil change. His manager then asked him to “help out” with both cars, even though he was on break.

At first, Jamal didn’t think it was a big deal, but once he began on the second car, he told the manager that he did not want to work while on break. But the manager brought up the fact that in the past, Jamal had come to work late a couple of times. When the manager told him to help him out with the cars to make up for it, Jamal felt that he was being pressured into essentially working for free.

That day, Jamal worked free for 15 minutes, and was never compensated for that work. He also ended up only getting 15 minutes to eat lunch. For a working man who supports a wife and three children on wages that are just above minimum wage, 15 minutes of pay can make a difference. And what is to say that it won’t happen again? Not surprisingly, Jamal knows of other employees who have also been asked to work while on break. He says that most of them are afraid to say something to the managers because they are afraid of losing their jobs. All that time can add up to serious amounts of lost wages on behalf of hard-working folks everywhere, and serious amounts of free labor for national chains like the one where Jamal works. “It’s a choice,” says Jamal. “You’re not being forced, but at the same time, it’s a thing you can’t do anything about. It makes you feel like you’re being used, like you don’t have rights, that you don’t have any say-so whatsoever.”

When Jamal was pressured by the manager to work off the clock to make up for being late, it really affected how he felt about his position. “He’s going to hang that over my head for the rest of the time I work here. I do admit that I have been late, but at the same time, I don’t think that should be held over my head.” He feels that he should have been disciplined appropriately for the infractions rather than having to feel as though he owes the manager a favor. Jamal’s overall perception of the management at the oil change shop is less than stellar. One manager sits around all day, feet propped up on the desk, while the technicians work hard servicing cars. He has also had to deal with a manager who has told offensive, racist jokes about African Americans. “A lot of times they figure if they’re in a management position, they can ask or do anything, whatever and whenever they want to.” Overall, Jamal feels that this company is a good company to work for, and that his negative experiences there have been shaped by individual managers. “It’s not so much the employer, it’s the employees that really make the difference.”

Jamal feels that employees who are taken advantage of in this way should be able to speak to someone at the company about the situation, a resource he does not currently have access to. He also believes that managers who ask their employees to work during breaks should be fined, and employees should be compensated for any time they worked without being paid. Unfortunately, Jamal does not feel he has any sort of recourse in his current position. “We figure the only thing the district manager is going to do is give the store managers a tap on the wrist. They don’t know what’s going on in the store because it never gets out. The store managers are still going to be there, and somewhere down the line they’re going to do it to somebody else.”

Jamal says that he doesn’t mind being asked to work while on break as long as he can clock back in and be paid for his work. For now, he plans to continue working at the oil change shop in order to save enough money to become an independent mechanic with his own shop. Jamal greatly appreciates the efforts of the Workers Interfaith Network and the individuals who stand up against wage theft and other workplace abuses. “All over the world people are getting misused and abused by their wages and their money, not just black people, but white people, Hispanic, all different kinds of races. We all have rights, but some of us are too weak to fight for ourselves. But there are people like you who are coming to fight for us. We really do salute you all and thank you, and are willing to stand behind you.”

WIN also appreciates individuals like Jamal who are willing to take the time to share their experiences with others.

*At his request, a pseudonym has been used to protect the identity of the participant.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stories of Wage Theft: Patricio G.

The following narrative is based on a true wage theft story from Memphis, TN. In the summer of 2011, I conducted interviews for a pro bono project with four individuals who experienced wage theft (and other labor violations) in order to share their stories and educate the public about the extent of wage theft in the community. Learn more about how to fight wage theft and unfair working conditions at Workers Interfaith Network.

Patricio G. understands what it is like to work in an environment in which employees are treated as expendable labor and management does everything it can to take advantage of the most vulnerable workers. When Patricio was forced to quit attending college because he could not afford the tuition, he got a job working at El Puerto Mexican Restaurant in Memphis, TN. He found out about the job through some friends of his family, who were looking to hire a server for the weekends. Patricio was grateful for the job not only because it gave him some extra spending money, but he was also able to contribute to the money that his family sent home to his mother in Argentina.

Right from the start, Patricio was informed that he would only be working for tips, instead of making $2.13 an hour plus tips as required by law. Although this was a violation of his rights as a worker, he agreed to the condition because he really needed the job. Patricio would start in the mornings by cleaning and preparing for the day, and would spend the rest of his shift serving tables. He would stay until after the restaurant closed to clean up, but was never paid for this extra work. Patricio only earned between $90 and $200 for working an average of 30 hours each weekend, which equates to between $3 and $6.67 per hour. As he continued at El Puerto, he also began to think that the manager was taking part of his tips from customers who used credit cards, which lowered his pay substantially.

One day, a customer came in with a coupon which specified that if the customer spent $200, he would get $100 off his total bill. The coupon noted that an 18% gratuity would be included in the total. After the customer paid the bill, the manager told Patricio that he would only be getting a 15% gratuity instead of the 18% gratuity he was owed. Because the total bill was over $200, he should have received at least $35 or more, but he was only given $15 for his work.

At first, he didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to get into an argument in the middle of his shift. But after his shift ended, he demanded that the manager give him the full amount, especially considering that he never made a whole lot of money working there. “A lot of days I would go in and not make a dollar because they wouldn’t get customers,” he says. If Patricio wasn’t making any money on tips, his employer should have been making up for the difference by paying him at least minimum wage, but of course they weren’t going to do that. Patricio also lived in Cordova, so the amount of gas he was spending just to get to work in East Memphis made it even more difficult to excuse the injustices he was experiencing. Not surprisingly, his employer never offered him any gas money for his troubles.

What really irritated Patricio was that the manager tried to give him an excuse for not giving him the full 18% gratuity. He said that because the coupon was donated to a charity raffle, the restaurant could only afford to give him $15 because it needed to make money off the coupon. This excuse was both hypocritical and intolerable to Patricio. “He didn’t understand that if you donate out of the kindness of your own heart, you shouldn’t expect profit off it,” he says. It was clear that the restaurant cared nothing for helping others but only about its own interests. To add insult to injury, the manager tried to make it seem like Patricio was complaining about something he shouldn’t be. Needless to say, Patricio ended up quitting that day.

Patricio did not try to recoup his wages because he did not want to create a problem between his family and the so-called “friends” who owned the restaurant. He sensed that other workers, including the other server and the cooks, were also being underpaid. Patricio feels that much needs to be done to protect workers from employers who take advantage of them. He believes this is especially true for undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in the restaurant industry and who are less likely to know their rights or have access to legal resources. He also thinks it would help if employees stood up for themselves. “It’s not helping you and it’s not helping the person who comes after you if you just let it happen like I did,” he says. “I just let it happen because I didn’t do anything afterwards. Just by quitting, somebody else is getting exploited now."