Rita, a longtime employee of the now-closed Short’s Burger and Shine in Iowa City, sought out the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa looking for help in receiving unpaid wages. After falling on the job while cleaning, Rita went to the hospital for two days and spent the better part of two weeks at […]
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Rita, a longtime employee of the now-closed Short’s Burger and Shine in Iowa City, sought out the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa looking for help in receiving unpaid wages.After falling on the job while cleaning, Rita went to the hospital for two days and spent the better part of two weeks at home. She maintains that although Short’s paid for her hospital bill, she was not paid worker’s compensation for her time off.But when the center looked at her pay stubs from previous years, they saw evidence of a much larger problem.“Over 13 years, she wasn’t getting paid overtime correctly,” said Kaille Simmons, a community organizer for the center. “Say in a two-week pay period, she had 89 hours worked versus 80. And he [owner Kevin Perez] was just paying those extra nine hours as regular time instead of time-and-a-half. That accrued over 13 years.’While the center is not sure exactly how much Rita could be owed — they don’t have access to payroll records yet — they estimate she deserves approximately $19,000, making it one of the larger wage theft cases the center has handled. Wage theft is defined as an employer paying less than the full wages to which the worker is legally entitled. Common examples of wage theft are not getting paid overtime, barring workers from taking meal breaks or worker misclassifications in certain industries like construction, where hourly workers are wrongfully considered independent contractors.In 2012, Common Good Iowa estimated that Iowa workers lose an estimated $600 million each year through wage theft, while the state misses out on about $60 million in unpaid tax revenue. Those figures might be “substantially more now without any serious enforcement by the state,” said Deputy Director Mike Owen in an email.According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than $3 billion in stolen wages was recovered on behalf of workers by the U.S. Department of Labor, state departments of labor and attorneys general, and through class and collective action litigation between 2017 and 2020.
Mr. Perez denies that he has wrongfully withheld wages from Rita. He insists that each day she would get off the bus for work a half an hour before her 9-to-5 shift, and instead of “wasting her time” and making her wait until 9 a.m., he let her begin the shift right away, he told the Daily Iowan.The center insisted that’s not a good enough reason to not pay overtime, and they said they have text messages from Mr. Perez saying it’s okay if she comes to work early. Rita has also told the center that he has asked her to come to work early on occasion.“From 2018-2019, Mr. Perez would give Rita two pay stubs for the same pay period, but from two of his restaurants and she has never worked at this second restaurant at all,” said Ms. Simmons. “So, we believe this was part of his way of covering up the overtime.”The CBJ was unable to reach Mr. Perez for comment on this story.Short’s Iowa City location closed last month due to being unable to finance the upkeep required to keep their “crumbling” downtown location in good shape, Mr. Perez told the Iowa City Press-Citizen last month.
Cases of wage theft have caught Ms. Salih’s eyes since 2012, when she first started knocking on doors in the community to tell people the Center for Worker Justice exists and then hearing that individuals weren’t getting paid for work. Most of the time, the center will work with businesses confidentially to recover wages, but in extreme cases Ms. Salih will organize a protest to draw attention in the community, like she did with Short’s on April 25.The center has helped workers recover wages from IHOP, Outback Steakhouse, Taco Loco, Beer Burger and Anaman Concierge Services in recent years. Currently, they are working on eight separate cases.Carpenters Local 1260 organized a standard information picket April 12 to raise awareness of wage theft. Royce Peterson, business representative for the union, says construction workers are not being paid correctly by JC Toland Painting, the company responsible for doing the metal studs and drywall for the interior of The Nest – an 11-story housing community part of the Tailwind Project that will be attached to the Pedestrian Mall.Ms. Salih says it is crucial to educate workers on spotting wage theft, and that these issues almost always impact underserved communities the most.“[About] 99.9% of our wage theft cases include immigrants, people of color, those with English as a second language or people who don’t know the law,” she explained. “We’ve seen cases increasing during the pandemic.”“In the case of Short’s Burgers, Rita told us that her cousin also used to work there and he never got paid overtime,” Ms. Salih said. “So, this is not only Rita. I feel like we can go back and see all the employees who work there. But I think we need to educate the community about this so she can discover this after year one, not after 13 years of employment.”The nonprofit has asked local government officials to help the center address wage theft by requesting American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to hire a community organizer. They will need $322,000 over five years. So far, Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty have all allocated partial funds to the request, and it is expected more funds could be on the way.“What’s the difference between wage theft and just stealing money from your pocket?” said Ms. Salih. “There’s no difference.”