KUNM

Lawsuit Opens Doors For Unpaid Workers

Jan 29, 2018

For years, the state department that is supposed to enforce wage laws was turning away some people who were trying to get their employers to pay them for work they’d done. Workers and advocacy organizations got together and sued, demanding New Mexico uphold its own laws. They won, and now some people can re-file those claims.

Like a lot of people, Jose Olivas was working toward a dream. As he helped remodel a friend’s restaurant, he was envisioning that one day, he could save up and buy the place from the owner. He thought it was a normal working arrangement, he said: You work. You get paid.

"We just assumed and thought the person was an honest person same as ourselves," Olivas said. "And we went to go work, work our butt off, to make a living, to prosper."

Later, Olivas said, when The 505 Burgers & Wings opened in Farmington, New Mexico, he and his wife put in hours from early until late. He cooked, and she handled the front of the house, dishwashing and busing. They were also trying to save up money to buy a food truck back home in Gallup.  

But, he said, his paychecks were coming up light. And his wife wasn’t getting paid at all. "When we would try to get our money, he would say, 'No no no. You know I have the money. Just look at it as like a savings.'”

Olivas never imagined he wouldn’t get paid. But after six or seven months of this, he said, they demanded their wages, and his boss refused.

$15 billion estimate is from the Economic Policy Institute
Credit Rashad Mahmood / KUNM

So, Olivas went to the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions to try to file a claim. "They couldn’t help us out because the person had stole too much of our earned money, which was a limit of $10,000," he said.

Olivas was owed so much money, he said, that he couldn’t file a claim with the state. That was three years ago.

Neza Leal is with Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a community organization for worker justice. "Wage theft is a very pervasive problem across race, across geographic area in our state." He said employers more often skip out on fully paying immigrants, Native Americans and low-wage employees.

"But we do know that in rural communities where there are even fewer resources," Leal said, "that wage theft sort of cuts a little deeper, where working families simply can’t afford to lose even one single dollar in their paycheck."

Part of the challenge, Leal said, is that people might think it’s only happening to them. "Study after study shows that many workers in our state are victims of wage theft," Leal said. "Wage violations tend to cluster so if an employer is stealing the wages of one employee, most likely they are also doing that same thing to their coworkers."

Olivas was part of a successful class-action lawsuit along with other workers and organizations from around New Mexico demanding that the state enforce its laws.

Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty represented them. "Its duty is to investigate these cases," she said. "We don’t have a minimum wage in our state when we don’t have an agency that is robustly enforcing that minimum wage."

We contacted Olivas’ boss, Morgan Newsom, the owner of The 505 Burgers & Wings in Farmington. His emailed response didn’t answer our questions and was rife with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Wagoner said employers know when a state's wage laws are being enforced well, "and they are disincentivized from violating the law."

The New Mexico Restaurant Association told us in a written statement that there are a patchwork of minimum wage laws here, and it’s understandable how small businesses might get confused about which ones apply to them.

In the lawsuit, the employees got pretty much everything they asked for, which forces the state to change its policies. Olivas can have his claim investigated now. He said he’s glad he helped make things easier for other workers in the state, but there’s still a sense of loss when he thinks about all those hours he put in.

"I could have done so much," he said. "I could have went and enjoyed myself with my son, which, I’m not going to get that time back no more."

The Department of Workforce Solutions will be sending notices to workers who can re-file their claims and have them investigated. DWS sent an emailed statement saying they’re glad to have resolved this matter quickly, and they will continue to take concerns brought by workers seriously.