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June 26, 2023

Wage theft in CT: Millions stolen from workers since 2019

JOSÉ LUIS MARTÍNEZ / CT MIRROR Lucas is standing at his porch in Bridgeport, where now takes care of a 10-month-old daughter with his wife.

Lucas has always had a strict budget. A few years ago, he rented a room in a house he shared with four other people in Bridgeport. He paid for utilities, his phone bill and food, reserving a few hundred dollars to send to his mom, brothers and wife back in Nicaragua.

Early one September morning in 2019, a contractor picked up Lucas and took him to a job site where he did electrical and painting work until 6 p.m. It never crossed Lucas’ mind that the man sitting in the driver’s seat that day would never pay him all he was owed for the work.

“Fifteen days passed, and he would only send texts like, ‘Give me time’ or ‘Tomorrow’ … Other times, he would read the messages and leave it at that. He wouldn’t respond. Then a month passed, and nothing. In that time I was asking him for the money, I was without a job,” said Lucas, who speaks Spanish.

Not getting paid was the last thing Lucas needed. He’s seeking political asylum, and a court case next year will determine whether he is able to remain in the Unites States, thousands of miles away from his home country. In Nicaragua, he was laid off from his job as an elementary school teacher and couldn’t get another job, despite his college degree.

Lucas’ real name is being withheld by CT Mirror due to the sensitive nature of his pending asylum case.

But two and a half years after that 7 a.m. ride with the contractor, he’s still waiting to be paid $1,200 of the $3,000 he was owed for the job. Lucas sued the contractor for the remaining wages and is anxiously awaiting a decision as he struggles to meet his budget, which now includes expenses for his 10-month-old daughter.

“You have to send money [back home], and you’re barely saving for rent, the phone … What you’re putting to the side can’t even handle personal matters like food,” said Lucas.

Since then, Lucas said, he has had his wages stolen again by a different employer. His wife, now in Connecticut, is also getting paid below the state minimum wage by her employer. So Lucas’ budget remains tight.

“In that moment, you see a moment of frustration, because you don’t know what to do, and you know that someone else has your money, and you’re stressed trying to find a solution. You don’t know if you’ll get hired tomorrow,” Lucas said.

“Días salen, días no salen,” he added, which means, “Some days work out, some days don’t.”

The exact amount of stolen wages in Connecticut is unknown, but some insight can be gleaned from complaints filed by workers to the departments of labor at both the state and federal levels, which investigate these complaints and can order employers to pay back wages.

Based on investigations of those complaints, the U.S. Department of Labor determined that Connecticut employers owed workers more than $10.3 million from January 2012 to April 2023. From 2019 through 2022, the Connecticut Department of Labor ordered employers to pay almost $17 million in stolen wages after investigations. Any wages ordered to be paid back from judgments by courts or by the National Labor Relations Board fall outside the labor departments’ figures and are hard to quantify due to how cases are recorded. And unreported wage theft could surpass all other categories.

Complicating matters, the state Department of Labor says it is dealing with a critical backlog of cases. Legislation to boost staffing levels failed to pass this year.

“People need to know that it [wage theft] is still going on. It’s still really common — that the people who they think are nice employers and very respectable community members in a lot of cases are literally stealing from people, stealing from people who have next to nothing,” said Peter Goselin, a labor and employment attorney who has specialized in wage and hour law in Connecticut for over a decade.

And while wage theft affects everyone, ranging from white-collar workers to restaurant workers, some communities are more vulnerable.

“Who are our most vulnerable or most marginalized communities as far as employment goes? Undocumented immigrants. Immigrants generally. People whose first language is not English … People who have learning disabilities, people who have been in jail. Generally speaking, people of color, women,” Goselin said.

The types of employers who steal wages vary as well, often in industries where the rule of law is faint in the eyes of the employer.

Federal data point to some employers responsible for wage theft

Workers can file wage complaints with the Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Department of Labor, which will investigate cases that might violate the Fair Labor Standards Act. If a violation of that law is found, such as not paying overtime or the federal minimum wage, WHD takes compliance action against the employer. That action can include imposing financial penalties or ordering employers to pay back wages.

Compliance action data show that from January 2012 to April 2023, WHD ordered Connecticut employers to pay back more than $10.3 million in wages for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The data only includes closed cases, meaning there could still be other active cases, and it is unknown whether the wages were paid back. Some employers had civil penalties imposed on them, which are issued in cases of repeated or willful violations or child labor. In the same time frame, WHD imposed about $247,000 in civil penalties on employers.

As for specific employers, the federal database lists hundreds in Connecticut, ranging from fast-food restaurants to mobile phone stores.

Some of the employers that owed the largest amounts in one case were Family Care Plus, owing over $627,000; Euro Homecare, owing over $605,000; and the Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill, which belongs to the state Department of Veterans Affairs, owing over $424,000.

The Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, Family Care Plus and Euro Homecare were not immediately available for comment.

The most impacted industry is the restaurant industry, where employers were ordered to pay more than $3 million since 2012, affecting almost 2,000 employees.

Scott Dolch, the president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said that his association will continue to educate employers on federal and state regulations and making sure that they follow them, which he says is one of the key function of the association.

“In recent years, we have also worked in partnership with the governor and state legislators on a bipartisan basis to clarify existing laws, regulations, and official state guidance, which had been widely recognized as unclear and inconsistent," Dolch said in a statement. "Connecticut’s restaurant and hospitality industry is made up almost entirely of small, locally-owned businesses that together employ 144,000 people in our state — they are working hard each day to keep their doors open, keep local workers employed, and keep serving as a key part of their local economy."

Within Connecticut, Fairfield County was the place where employers were ordered to pay the most wages and where the most employees were affected.

Anybody, regardless of immigration status, can submit a complaint to the Wage and Hour Division if they believe they aren't being paid the federal minimum wage or overtime. However, they have only two years to submit a claim in cases of accidental violations or three years for intentional violations.

CT investigators are overwhelmed

The state's Wage and Workplace Standards Division in the Connecticut Department of Labor also investigates all wage complaints they receive from workers.

As of March 2023, there were 1,176 cases in various stages of investigation assigned to a staff of 24, creating a four- to six-month backlog, according to the state's Department of Labor in a workgroup document compiled by the Appropriations Committee this legislative session.

There were also almost 800 cases yet to be assigned to staff, which "is an extraordinarily high number that has continued to surge over the last 12-15 months," reads the department's response to the Appropriations Committee. "The number of pending claims on October 20, 2022 was 542, while that figure stood at 117 on October 21, 2020."

Anthony Soto, a wage enforcement agent at the Connecticut Department of Labor and vice president at Local 269 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees labor union, testified that his agency doesn't have enough investigators and that they're "stretched pretty thin."

"There is less of an opportunity for proactive enforcement ... When we have cases in the backlog that we need to address, we're not going to be able to go out on a construction site or into a restaurant and do a random site inspection where we know there's a high propensity for violations," said Soto. "The complaints that we get are just the tip of the iceberg."

Soto also attributes the backlog to the increased number of wage complaints received every year.

The state labor department takes in wage claims similar to the federal department but expands the range of claims to include any non-payment of wages such as not receiving a paycheck, bonuses or commission, and one can only recover wages for up to two years from the moment a claim is filed, regardless of the employer's intention.

From 2018 through 2022, between 1,800 and 3,200 complaints were received from workers each year, reaching a total of 13,579. WWSD investigates every complaint they receive. In that same time period, 12,065 cases were closed, meaning the case reached a settlement or wages were recovered.

In all those cases investigated, WWSD ordered almost $17 million to be paid back to workers after finding that employers violated state wage and hour law. In that same time frame, employers have paid back $16 million. The money recovered each year isn’t directly related to the amount billed that year, since a case can be investigated in one year and closed in another year, cases can be reopened and employers may pay back wages owed in a different year than they are billed.  

And from 2019 through 2022, WWSD imposed about $4 million in civil penalties on employers due to a variety of reasons, such as violating the law a certain number of times.

State department of labor data can't provide a completely detailed picture of all the employers involved in cases due to the limits of its data system. And the division has also been rebuked for its management of case files and its handling of monetary receipts by state auditors.

An audit released last year by the state's Auditors of Public Accounts for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 found that the division "lacks sufficient controls to ensure that it properly documents all complaints," among other things, and noted that its findings have been previously reported in part in the last six audit reports, going as far back as 2007.

"There is an operational manual and a training guide that provide the framework and details for the E-Wage system which CTDOL uses to maintain case progress notes and documents; ensure proper decision-making; and maintain other controls," said a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Labor. "CTDOL disagrees with the audit findings."

Legislative attempts at easing the burden

Despite the backlog, in the five months that legislators spent in session this year bringing more than 500 bills to life, they did not pass a bill that would have increased the number of inspectors who investigate cases of wage theft.

House Bill 5854 would have increased the number of wage and hour inspectors to no fewer than 45, from the approximately two dozen current wage enforcement agents or investigators.

Soto thinks the bill would have helped his team.

"At the course of two or three years, you're going to see our recoveries will probably more than double, I would think ... there wouldn't likely be a backlog. So the number of staff is critical ... there's no other way around it."

The bill was referred to the Appropriations Committee for further discussion.

Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who led the bill's introduction upon hearing constituents' concerns, particularly the advocacy organization Unidad Latina en Acción, said that one of the Appropriations Committee chairs didn't think it was feasible to pass the bill due to spending cap issues and competing interests.

There was no fiscal note on the original bill indicating how much it might have cost.

"Folks felt that it was hard to expand the state workforce when there were so many other extenuating circumstances and needs," said Lemar.

A co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that after the bill passed out of the labor committee, no legislator advocated for the bill to move forward and that there was no comment from the Department of Labor.

The Commissioner of the state's Department of Labor, Danté Bartolomeo, testified before the Appropriations Committee in late February, supporting Gov. Ned Lamont's budget and its investments in some of the department's initiatives, but she didn't mention anything about the Wage and Workplace Standards Division and the need for more investigators.

A spokesperson for CTDOL said Bartolomeo was not available for comment.

"We urge anyone who believes they are not being paid in accordance with state law to file a complaint with the Wage and Workplace Standards Division," said a CTDOL spokesperson. "Like other safety net agencies, the Connecticut Department of Labor would welcome more staff and resources for our work. In the Wage and Workplace Standards Division, additional staff would allow us to move from a complaint-driven enforcement posture to a prevention-driven posture; shorten the time it takes to open cases from complaints; and further protect the state’s workforce from illegal labor practices."

The other co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, was on vacation and was not able to provide comment.

One day before the legislature adjourned for the year, there was a last-minute attempt at increasing the number of wage and hour inspectors by tacking an amendment onto a different labor bill, which was introduced by Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry.

"They [Connecticut Department of Labor] are four to six months backlogged ... So that's part of the other issue, is that we enact this legislation, and we just give it no real solid bones to do it," said Ackert on the House Floor.

The amendment failed to pass, with the chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, Rep. Manny Sanchez, D-New Britain, and Lemar voting in opposition, stating that the budget had already passed and the amendment would add a fiscal note.

Lemar said he's still optimistic about a solution.

"I think that might be the short term goal ... I don't want to wait a whole year. Working with our Department of Labor to reallocate internal resources to target this right now, and then moving forward, when we have a little bit more space in next year's budget — can we hire more permanent staff that can fill that need?" said Lemar.

John Jairo Lugo, who has been advocating against wage-theft for over 20 years as community organizing director and co-founder at Unidad Latina en Acción based in New Haven, said he's disappointed the bill didn't pass despite the billions in surplus that the state has.

"Here [in Connecticut], if you don't go in and take [it to] the Capitol, if you don't take to the streets, if you don't mobilize people, they won't — politicians won't understand. And I think that's what we have to focus on for next session, is basically improve our mobilization capacity and get people to the streets," said Lugo in Spanish. "Modern slavery still exists in Connecticut, and it's because every day, someone or many people, or thousands of people, especially immigrants, are being robbed of their salaries and are being taken advantage of because of their legal status."

Soto, the wage enforcement agent, also expressed disappointment that the bill failed to pass, but he thinks it has to be on legislators' agenda next session, along with a focus on educating workers about their rights.

"This is something that every legislator has a constituent that's been impacted by, so that not taking action on it is a detriment to wage-theft in general," said Soto. "A lot of workers don't even know that they can come and file a complaint."

What’s the best avenue for wage relief?

There is no single criterion that would determine the best avenue when trying to recover wages, as it depends on the nature of the case and other details, but Goselin said there are some distinctions that can help narrow it down.

For example, the U.S. Department of Labor will deal with claims related only to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates things such as the federal minimum wage and overtime pay. But even then, there are incentives that could push people to file with the state instead.

For example, if somebody is getting paid only $12 an hour, they wouldn't be able to file with the U.S. Department of Labor since the federal minimum wage is $7.25, but the state minimum wage is $15 as of June 1, 2023, so a claim with the state's Department of Labor would be appropriate. But if someone is getting paid below the federal minimum wage, although filing with either is appropriate, it would be better to file with the state since more can be recovered due to the state minimum wage.

Unlike the federal agency, the state also has a larger scope of claims that it can investigate, such as claims for an unpaid bonus, missed paycheck or unpaid commission.

And sometimes the amount of the wage claim can dictate where a claim should be submitted.

"Let's say it's $800 or $1,000. I can't bring a claim like that to court" because the amount is too small, Goselin said. Instead, he refers people to the state Department of Labor. "So the result of that is that the Connecticut Department of Labor ends up handling lots and lots of cases that sometimes involve very small amounts of money, which neither the federal agencies nor the court system generally have to deal with," said Goselin.

Goselin says that there are two things everyone should know.

First, whoever is making wage decisions in a company can't avoid responsibility by claiming that they're protected by the company structure of a limited liability company, which allows judges to go after an individual's personal assets if they don't pay back the wages.

"Under Connecticut and federal wage and hour law, the individual who is the person who is responsible for making decisions about hiring and firing and determining the terms and conditions of employment, that individual can be held personally liable to the same extent as the company itself," said Goselin.

Second, unlike in situations of bankruptcy, there are no excuses that a company can use to avoid paying debts such as wages.

"In employment law, there are no safe harbors," explained Goselin. "From the very first week that that employer did not make payroll, he was in violation of the law. And he never stopped being in violation of the law no matter what else he said or did."

Struggle continues for Lucas
Shortly after Lucas' first experience with wage theft, he was not paid by a different employer. He's owed $2,000 for over 80 hours of work, and the employer has refused to pay.

"This was a guy that I didn't know too well, but he seemed like a good person in the moment when speaking with him. But behind all that, there were other things that weren't good, but one doesn't know it until there's a problem," said Lucas.

That happened more than three years ago, meaning it's too late to file with the state or federal Department of Labor, so filing a lawsuit is the only way Lucas can try to get his wages paid.

But the employer had left the country for two years, making it difficult for Lucas to track him down. He has since returned, and Lucas said he is again trying to get his wages back.

Now, he's part of the Connecticut Worker Center, where he advocates for workers' rights, and he shares advice with others so that they don't suffer the same fate he did, urging them to get as much info about their employer as possible.

"Try to take photos, the address of where you're working at, who you're working with, their name, phone number," Lucas said. "It's the stuff that happens, you know? Frauds committed by the bosses."

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