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."