A South Bay woman has waited more than two years for thousands of dollars in overtime pay owed to her by a former employer.
Katie Bardo told NBC 7 Investigates she desperately needs the money and she’s extremely frustrated that the state agency whose job it is to protect workers hasn’t done more to help her collect from the company.
“I’m angry they’re in business,” Bardo said. “I’m angry that they’re operating. I’m angry that they stopped making their payments.”
Bardo said she helped manage Pacific Coast Auto Detail, a car wash and detailing shop near Golden Hill, from 2009 to 2012. According to her, it was a stressful job with long hours, for which she was paid a modest salary.
Like many lower-paid salaried workers in California, Bardo did not know she was also entitled to overtime when she worked more than 40 hours a week.
NBC 7 Investigates confirmed Bardo is one of thousands of California workers many of them here in San Diego — who are victims of “wage theft” by employers. Many of those victims are unable to collect all — or even some — of the money owed them, even when the California Labor Commissioner obtains a court-ordered judgment against the employer.
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Bardo’s ordeal started in August 2012, when a state labor inspector made a surprise visit to Pacific Coast Auto Detail, which was then located in the East Village. Bardo said the inspector asked her boss if Bardo worked more than 40 hours a week.
“And he said, ‘no,’” Bardo recalled. “But I did. I worked tons of overtime.”
That investigation resulted in fines and penalties of more than $32,000 against Pacific Coast Auto Detail.
The company denied the allegations and appealed the fines and penalties, but Bardo had evidence of her overtime work in the form of cellphone records of calls she made to her boyfriend on her way home from her job.
“I called him every day and told him, ‘Honey, I’m headed home.' And it would be 5:30 p.m., or it would be 6 p.m., and I used my cellphone records to reconstruct the (overtime).”
Bardo also had receipts with the time and date from a gas station near the detail shop. She testified she stopped there for gas on her way home to Imperial Beach.
After hearing testimony and reviewing evidence at the April 2013 appeals hearing, the state hearing officer ruled “Bardo’s reconstruction of her overtime hours worked… is credible.”
The hearing officer awarded Bardo $2,408 in overtime. Another former employee was awarded $231. The hearing officer also ordered Pacific Coast Auto Detail to pay an additional $14,000 in fines for wage law violations. (That total penalty of $16,636 was a reduction from the $32,000 penalty imposed by the inspector in 2012.)
“I think I almost cried,” Bardo said. “You don’t feel like you have a chance. So to win that is a big victory, even if it’s not a lot of money.”
She said state labor officials told her they would collect the monies due her from her former employer (she quit her job after the 2012 inspection) and forward the payments to her.
But months passed, and the money never arrived. Pacific Coast Detail remained open for business and Bardo hadn’t been paid a dime.
“It was really frustrating,” she recalled. “It was beyond frustrating.”
Finally, last November — 18 months after she quit her job and four years after she started working that unpaid overtime — Bardot got a letter from the state.
“And I remember, we were at the post office, and my boyfriend comes out with the envelope in his hand, and he knows it’s from the (state) controller,” Bardo said. “And he’s shaking it, and then I open it and see $18. Eighteen dollars! Where’d they even get $18, of all the things to send me?”
NBC 7 Investigates has learned $18 is more than most wage-theft victims ever recover. We analyzed five years of wage claim data generated by the state labor commissioner, and the numbers are staggering: California workers are owed more than $250 million for hours worked but never paid by their employers.
San Diego-area workers are owed at least $820,000.
“We were shocked to discover that just 17 percent of those folks who received final judgments for unpaid wages collected even a dime,” said Tina Koonse, director of the UCLA Labor Center.
NBC 7 Investigates has also learned that the state labor commissioner does not track whether companies comply with those judgments, and no state agency enforces them. Workers must sometimes file lawsuits in civil court to try to collect wages owed them. Those lawsuits cost money, with no certainty of success.
“How could someone who doesn’t speak the English language as well as I do find out who to contact or write a letter and expect to get an answer?” Bardo said.
NBC 7 Investigates has learned that thousands of Spanish-speaking wage-theft victims, many whom work as kitchen staff, janitors and constructions workers, are targets of illegal wage practices.
Language is a significant barrier for San Diego wage-theft victims like David Sanchez and his wife, Consuelo Montesinos, who worked 10 or more hours a day cleaning local restaurants with only a vague promise of a future raise.
Like Bardo, they won a wage theft judgment against their employer. But that was six years ago, and they haven’t recovered a penny.
“They should pay us what they owe us,” Montesinos told NBC 7 Investigates. “We just want what they stole from us.”
A few weeks after NBC 7 Investigates began calling the state and Pacific Coast Auto Detail about the money owed to Bardo, she received a $1,400 payment from the state controller. She is still owned almost $1,000.
Pacific Coast Auto Detail is still open for business. Company managers and the attorney who represented them at the state appeals hearing have not responded to our repeated request for comment.
The state Department of Industrial Relations has also failed to answer our questions or explain what steps it has taken to help Bardo collect the monies due her. The state agency also would not reveal what — if any — actions have been taken against Pacific Coast Auto Detail for its failure to pay the full amount owned Bardo.
“It’s money that I earned and worked for,” Bardo said. “I’ve already done the work for this money and done the work to go after the company. And I’m still working to actually get a check from someone.”
California state legislators are paying attention to these stories and the cases of wage theft documented by NBC 7 Investigates and NBC Bay Area.
State Senator Kevin de Leon, who grew up in Logan Heights where he says he personally knew wage-theft victims, is sponsoring legislation that could help the labor commissioner crack down on companies that don’t pay overtime or minimum wage and sometimes force workers to skip meals and breaks.
De Leon’s proposed law would hold employers individually liable for those violations and require some companies to post a bond to stay in business. If a company violates wage laws, proceeds from the bond could help pay the victims.
“We’re going to make sure we do everything possible to get these stolen wages back in their pockets so they can feed their families,” de Leon told NBC 7 Investigates. “We want to empower the labor commissioner to go after the bad actors.”
NBC 7 Investigates is working for you. If you have more information about this or other story tips, contact us: (619) 578-0393, NBC7Investigates@nbcuni.com. To receive the latest NBC 7 Investigates stories subscribe to our newsletter.