California state lawmakers are calling for new penalties for companies that don’t pay workers.
Since 2010, California courts have identified more than $273 million in stolen wages in California. More than 280 San Diego companies have failed to pay at least $800,000 in wages, overtime and meal breaks, according to state records reviewed by NBC 7 Investigates.
David Sanchez and his wife, Consuelo Montesinos, are two of the victims of wage theft. In 2006, the San Diego couple agreed to work for $50 per night, each, cleaning the kitchen and dining room at the Cheesecake Factory in Otay Ranch. The company that hired them had a contract to clean the restaurant.
“They told me they were going to promote me to supervisor and give me more money, and that's why I accepted," Sanchez recalled.
But David and Consuelo said their employer, Excell Cleaning and Building Services, which also had contracts with the Elephant Bar and Yard House restaurants in California, soon demanded they work longer hours, up to 10 or 12 a day, without breaks, and only vague promises of a future raise.
"They told us, 'We are going to give you more money, but we need you to do a better job,'" Sanchez said.
Not long after, their paychecks started bouncing. The couple couldn’t buy groceries at the store that routinely cashed their checks.
In 2009, a state judge awarded former employees of Excell Cleaning and another company more than $13 million in unpaid wages, in a default judgment. State officials and independent labor advocates told NBC 7 Investigates they have tried to collect on that money, but say the companies are gone.
View a searchable database of the top 100 companies not paying workers.
Even with a judgment in their favor, workers are in a difficult position. The Labor Commissioner does not track whether companies comply and no state law enforces the judgments. A worker’s only real pathway to recovering wages is to file a civil suit in court.
President Pro Tempore of California’s State Senate, Kevin De Leon, has proposed a new law that would require those companies who fail to pay court-ordered back wages to post a bond of $150,000 in order to keep doing business.
The California Labor Commissioner, Julie Su, is now working to fight the problem as best she can. Su spoke with the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit for its first report earlier this year. But declined the most recent interview request to discuss why the state does not track which companies pay and don’t pay wage judgments.
“Getting money back into workers’ pockets is certainly a challenge,” Su said in February. “It’s also very important to this administration that at the end of the day it’s not just that workers get their money back, it’s that employers have to pay penalties for breaking the law, because otherwise they would have still gotten away with it,” Su told the Investigative Unit.
Last year Assemblymember Mark Stone and the SEIU pushed similar legislation, but the bill did not get voted on before the legislative session concluded.
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