Brutes of Labor

News1-McKay-Low-income-workersNew report uncovers employer abuses in Santa Cruz County’s low-wage economy

Carlos Rodriguez, a construction laborer in Santa Cruz County, needed money and took a quick job pouring and finishing concrete—but his compensation never came.

“The boss just left at the end of the day—we agreed we would get paid at the end of the day, and he was just gone,” Rodriguez told a crowd of about 30 people at the Watsonville Civic Plaza Community Room on Thursday, Nov. 5., with the help of a translator.

Rodriguez was one of several speakers at a launch event for the Working for Dignity Project, a newly released report on low-income jobs and working conditions in Santa Cruz County.

After failing to get any response from several phone messages, Rodriguez asked for help from the Day Worker Center of Santa Cruz County, where he had originally received the job referral, Rodriguez said. Eventually, the employer told the Day Worker Center staff that he had just put the check in the mail. A week later, the employer said some mistake had been made, and the check would be sent that day. Now, months later, Rodriguez still has not been paid, and a formal “wage theft” claim has been filed with the California Labor Commission with the assistance of the Day Worker Center.   

A newly released study of low-wage workers in Santa Cruz County documents the struggle to make ends meet in one of the least-affordable housing markets in the nation. It also shows systematic patterns of abuse in terms of wage theft, inadequate break times and retaliation against workers who speak out against the mistreatment.

The research project, “Working for Dignity: Low-Wage Worker Study for Santa Cruz County” was almost two years in the making, involving over 100 UCSC undergraduates who fanned out across the county to conduct more than 1,300 surveys and 76 in-depth interviews with low-income workers. This “census of the invisible,” as project director and UCSC Sociology Professor Steve McKay calls it, was designed to collect solid data on low-wage work and working conditions, as well as gather stories “from a vulnerable, hard-to-reach population that is often missed … and therefore ignored by public policy,” he says.

Every month, Mireya Gomez-Contreras, Director of the Day Labor Center of Santa Cruz County, processes an average of three to four cases of workers not getting paid for work performed across all sectors of low-wage occupations, she says, “from hotel workers, casual laborers, men and women.”

“These claims range from a day to a week of unpaid labor,” Gomez-Contreras says. “The most difficult thing for me is those workers who stay silent—who decide not to pursue a claim, because it was ‘just a day,’ or ‘just a few days’—because we know that employer is going to do it again.”

A more common problem than outright wage theft is workers not getting paid for overtime hours. Fully 38 percent of the workers surveyed reported being cheated out of overtime pay, the legally mandated time-and-half paid for hours worked in excess of eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. “Wage theft,” as it’s called, can be overt, with bosses not paying time-and-half for extra hours worked. Or it can be more subtle—accumulated in 15 and 30-minute increments over the course of a work week that aren’t counted.

“This is a really insidious problem,” says Gretchen Regenhardt, lead attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). “There seems to be no end to the different ways it happens because of the truly imaginative ways employers find to cheat their workers.”

A similar epidemic is many employers’ failure to provide legally required breaks—the mandated 15 minutes every four hours and a minimum 30-minute lunch break per eight-hour work shift.

Many employers hide these violations by not providing legally required pay stubs stating earnings and deductions, according to the report. Forty percent of low-wage workers reported not receiving adequate documentation—showing how much and for how many hours they were getting paid—with their paychecks. And 11.5 percent received no pay stubs at all. Without proper pay documentation, there is no way for workers to know whether or not they are getting ripped off, and if so, by how much.

Six sectors of the local economy were covered in the survey: food, retail sales, personal care, cleaning, construction, and farm work. Based on the California Poverty Measure, which takes into account the high cost of housing, the poverty threshold for a family of four in Santa Cruz County was determined to be $32,884 in 2012.

That “threshold of poverty” translates into one $15.81 hourly wage. The average wage of the workers surveyed was $12.37 an hour, with a median wage of only $10 an hour—an annual gross income of $20,800. That’s 63 percent of the income necessary for a household of four to stay above the poverty line.

The report emphasizes that job growth since the Great Recession, both locally and statewide, has been mostly in low-wage occupations, with a “hollowing out” of middle-class jobs since 2011. It notes that the county’s two biggest sectors, agriculture and tourism, are both heavily dependent on low-wage workers. The average age of workers surveyed was 35, compared to an average age of 40 in low-wage occupations statewide.

McKay, the sociology professor, says the larger community can help workers by supporting the community organizations that try to give low-wage workers more voice. He endorses a newly formed partnership between CRLA and the Day Worker Center to provide monthly wage and hour clinics that assist in processing claims of wage theft and other violations of basic worker rights.

McKay says the larger community should be more conscious of the fact that so much of what consumers depend on—the low prices for food and services many take for granted—is only possible because some people are getting paid very little.

“There are so many people who do the fundamental hard work that makes this community run, who are often invisible and who face all kinds of indignities in the workplace,” says McKay. “Our goal was to make the low-wage worker and their issues more visible, and really listen to them about their problems at work.”

For more information on the findings, visit Working for Dignity will host a panel discussion on raising the minimum wage from 7-9 p.m., Nov. 19 at the Museum of Art & History.

WAGES WAR UCSC sociology professor Steve McKay, who spoke at a press conference for a new report on the low-wage economy, says workers often get left behind by policy makers. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

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