On a Tuesday afternoon in June, Humberto was ripping old cables from the walls of a high school in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, when his cell phone rang.
Humberto’s wife, who had just returned from her weekly grocery shopping, was calling him. “Our account is negative (red numbers),” he said.
The 45-year-old electrician, who spoke on the condition of being identified by his middle name only because he is undocumented, had been working 10 hours a day, six days a week, as part of a $ 200 million renovation project. This is how he found out that his check for $ 1,250 had bounced.
And so began Humberto’s unsuccessful quest to get a fair wage for a day’s work, a familiar story for many other wage theft victims who have to fight for months or years for the money owed to them.
Businesses that rely on low-wage workers are the most likely to be caught cheating their employees, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of minimum wage and overtime violations from the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2019 alone, the agency cited about 8,500 employers for taking about $ 287 million from workers.
The contractor in Humberto’s case, Mata Electric, paid the check about a week after it was returned, he said, but it was only the first of several checks to bounce that ended up condemning his family of four to falling into a deep dive. debt.
When he left the job in August, Humberto said, the contractor owed him more than $ 3,500 for five weeks of work.
Humberto was forced to borrow $ 500 from his mother-in-law in Honduras to pay the rent. His mother, who works at Krispy Kreme, also loaned him money.
He soon began to wonder if his co-workers were also being misled.
“We workers don’t like to talk about it, out of shame,” he says. “You’re basically admitting that you let someone take advantage of you,” he adds.
Finally, he asked them. Some colleagues said they had been unpaid for weeks; others, more than a month. Humberto and a group of his colleagues decided to confront their supervisor, Tina Sharpe, after lunch one day in August. One of the younger workers helped them by translating into English.
“We are very, very angry. You owe us a lot of checks,” Humberto told him.
Sharpe responded calmly, he said, and told them the company was in financial trouble. He said that she promised them the money was on the way and begged them to keep working. Humberto did it, for a few more weeks. When two more checks bounced him, he started looking for another job.
He never received his last check, he added.
Through an attorney, Sharpe declined to comment except to deny any wrongdoing and dispute Public Integrity’s use of the term “wage theft.”
Isaac Guazo of the nonprofit Adelante Alabama Worker Center urged Humberto and his co-workers to sue Mata Electric.
The idea scared Humberto. He had heard stories of immigration officials waiting in court to detain undocumented immigrants. Some of his co-workers, who are also undocumented, backed down. About a dozen, including Humberto, decided to move on.
His attorney filed the paperwork in federal court in early December. There was only one problem: they could not find the co-owner of the company, Erick Mata, to deliver the documents. They had 120 days to do it. After that, the subpoena would expire and a judge could dismiss the case.
On February 19, a bailiff located Sharpe at one of Mata’s Birmingham homes and served him one summons and one for Mata. She and Mata, both named in the lawsuit as defendants and co-owners of the company, did not respond to the workers’ allegations.
No one responded to Public Integrity’s phone calls to the number listed at Mata’s address. Public Integrity also sent certified letters to four addresses seeking comment, but did not respond.
Public records show that Mata began to have financial problems as early as 2017, when the IRS filed a tax lien against him for $ 28,596 in unpaid taxes. The state of Alabama has filed three tax liens against Mata since 2018. In September and October, he defaulted on his mortgage, according to records. It is not clear where he lives now.
In March, Sharpe filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which could make it harder for Humberto and his co-workers to get their money. If Humberto is successful, he already knows what he will spend it on.
“I really need to pay my mother-in-law,” she said. “And my mother.”
Public Integrity data reporter Joe Yerardi contributed to this article. Alexia Fernández Campbell is a reporter for Public Integrity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter at @AlexiaCampbell.