Thousands of Californians are working for free -- or close to it -- every day, and not because they want to.
NBC 7 Investigates combed through state records and found a pattern of what critics call “wage theft”, in which companies don’t pay workers what they earn.
The records also reveal many of those companies refuse to make those payments, even when judges and state labor officials demand they do so.
Since 2010, 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.
The couple had three young girls to support, and Montesinos said, “We needed the more income to pay rent, and to give better living conditions to our kids."
In the beginning, they each worked five to seven hours a night, making more than minimum wage.
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.
“They said all the funds were frozen, because the checks I deposited didn’t have any funds,” Sanchez said.
“I felt very sad, because we had all our groceries in our shopping cart and had to leave it on the side,” Montesinos said.
When the couple stopped working for Excell in 2007, they were owed more than $10,000, Lilia Garcia-Brower, who runs the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund said.
The Fund is a public interest group that helps wage theft victims in San Diego and throughout California. Garcia-Brower said wage theft is “rampant” in San Diego.
According to her, janitors are the most common victims of wage theft, because many don't speak English, have little education, and little knowledge of California labor laws. She said other workers in the local service industry are also victims, including restaurant and hotel workers, janitors, security guards, landscapers and domestic workers.
NBC 7 Investigates reviewed five years of wage claims data from the state Labor Commission. Across California, courts have ruled against 17,000 companies, and awarded workers $274 million.
But legal judgments don’t guarantee payment for workers, Garcia-Brower said.
“We were shocked to discover that just 17 percent of those folks who received final judgments for unpaid wages collected a dime,” Garcia-Bower explained. “Which means that 83 percent had nothing to show for their efforts. And when we hold those companies accountable and we win, and they vanish. They leave California. You can't trace them, you can't find them."
In 2009, a state judge awarded former employees of Excell Cleaning and another company more than $13 million in unpaid wages, in a default judgement. 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.
"I feel very disappointed by the system because after 10 years, I haven't received anything, no money, from the company," Sanchez said.
"We just want them to pay us what they owe us, what they stole from us," his wife said.
Public records indicate Excell Cleaning left California in 2009. The company is headquartered in Houston, Texas.
NBC 7 Investigates tried to reach Excell Cleaning for comment, but two phone numbers listed for the company are disconnected.
Sanchez and Montesinos have moved on with their lives. They are raising their three girls in a small home in Southeast San Diego. Montesinos now works as a janitor for a hotel that pays her a legal wage and David is a self-employed handyman.
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