Immigrant Workers: San Fran Designer Owes Us at Least $40K

Rose Arrieta August 7, 2009

Workers and allies protest in front of San Francisco's Kansas Design Pavilion, which houses the office of Mark Sommerfield, owner of Derapage Design. Four workers say he owes them unpaid wages and overtime.

Four Lati­no immi­grant work­ers claim a San Fran­cis­co-based inte­ri­or design­er owes them at least $40,000 in unpaid wages and penal­ties. The work­ers say Mark Som­mer­field, own­er of Der­a­page Design, Inc., has made it a prac­tice to hire immi­grant work­ers for car­pen­try and iron­work on high-end uphol­stery fur­ni­ture, and then not pay for all their work.

On July 29, the Worker’s Rights Unit of La Raza Cen­tro Legal, a legal advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion in San Fran­cis­co, com­mu­ni­ty allies and work­ers marched to the Kansas Design Pavil­ion in San Fran­cis­co, which hous­es Sommerfield’s show­room office, to try to embar­rass him into pay­ing up.

Accord­ing to the work­ers’ attor­ney, Rocio Avi­la of La Raza Cen­tro Legal, Som­mer­field has yet to respond.

It was the sec­ond time work­ers and allies protest­ed in front of the pavil­ion. Dur­ing the first protest, on July 22, Som­mer­field locked his doors and left only after he was escort­ed by San Fran­cis­co police officers.

Som­mer­field, says Avi­la, has made it part of his busi­ness prac­tice to hire immi­grant work­ers to do var­i­ous kinds of work and then not pay what they are owed. Avi­la said that Som­mer­field has ignored numer­ous demand let­ters” to pay his work­ers. She said that he has been sued for oth­er types of claims and seems to ignore them as if he were above the law.”

Attempts to reach Som­mer­field for his side of the sto­ry have been unsuc­cess­ful. As of Fri­day, Som­mer­field had not respond­ed to the work­ers’ attorney.

It is unfair that dur­ing these times we are still being exploit­ed,” said one for­mer work­er. “[He] treat­ed us bad­ly. When I asked for my back pay he ignored me.” The work­er, who did not want to be iden­ti­fied, said that Som­mer­field would pay him for half a month’s work and keep string­ing him along the rest of the month, always promis­ing to pay the rest but nev­er catch­ing up with what he owned the work­er. The work­er con­tin­ued on, he said, because I was desperate.”

This is just one exam­ple of what Avi­la calls the epi­dem­ic of wage theft in the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty.” Whether it’s a low-wage work­er or a day labor­er, she says many immi­grant work­ers don’t know they can ask for help in col­lect­ing their wages.

Wage theft occurs when work­ers are not paid all their wages, work­ers are denied over­time when they should be paid it, or work­ers aren’t paid at all for work they’ve per­formed. Wage theft is when an employ­er vio­lates the law and deprives a work­er of legal­ly man­dat­ed wages, accord­ing to Kim Bobo, author the book a href=“http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/4061/the_crisis_of_wage_theft/”>Wage Theft in Amer­i­ca .

Whether work­ers are not paid at all or paid just a por­tion of what they are owed, Avi­la says it’s a sys­tem­at­ic prob­lem in this country.

The low-wage work­er may be work­ing at a poul­try fac­to­ry in Wis­con­sin or a restau­rant in San Fran­cis­co or at a shop in New York with abu­sive con­di­tions, but they are not stand­ing on the cor­ner. These guys for the most part, get some­thing. But among day labor­ers, they are recruit­ed, do the work and then the employ­er nev­er picks them up the next day and they don’t see them anymore.”

Accord­ing to the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter, the high­est inci­dence of wage theft is in New Orleans, where there is now a nation­al effort under­way to pro­tect migrant day labor­ers from wage theft, coer­cion and abuse. After the Kat­ri­na dis­as­ter, hun­dreds of con­trac­tors hired Lati­no immi­grants to clean up debris, repair soaked build­ings and repair roofs. Hun­dreds of them were either under­paid what was owed or not paid at all.

I rebuilt New Orleans after Kat­ri­na – but my employ­er stole thou­sands from me,” said one mem­ber of the New Orleans Con­gress of Day Labor­ers, which is a project of the New Orleans Work­ers Cen­ter for Racial Justice.

Day labor­ers are being hired for one or two days and not get­ting paid at all and this is hap­pen­ing across the coun­try – there are pock­ets of day labor and work cen­ters all over – it’s not exclu­sive to the urban areas,” says Avi­la, adding, Because of the change in demo­graph­ics, in places like the Mid­west in the meat and poul­try indus­try, there are these problems.”

Just this past March, the U.S. Labor Depart­ment, which is sup­posed to enforce labor laws such as wage vio­la­tions was found to be doing a very poor job. In a report”:http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/ entry/4682/labor_dept._fails_the_wage_theft_test/ from the Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office (GAO), con­gres­sion­al audi­tors in a nine-month inves­ti­ga­tion found the agency’s Wage and Hour Divi­sion fre­quent­ly failed to respond ade­quate­ly to com­plaints due to an inef­fec­tive sys­tem that dis­cour­ages wage complaints.”

In June, the GAO released an updat­ed report with some recommendations”:http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09 – 629 among them: extend­ing the statute of lim­i­ta­tions while an inves­ti­ga­tion by the Divi­sion is ongo­ing,” addi­tion­al staff and upgrad­ed research tools to inves­ti­gate those under inves­ti­ga­tion, among oth­er things.

Accord­ing to the new report, all the rec­om­men­da­tions are in process.”

Rose Arri­eta was born and raised in Los Ange­les. She has worked in print, broad­cast and radio, both main­stream and com­mu­ni­ty ori­ent­ed — includ­ing being a for­mer edi­tor of the Bay Area’s inde­pen­dent com­mu­ni­ty bilin­gual biweek­ly El Tecolote. She cur­rent­ly lives in San Fran­cis­co, where she is a free­lance jour­nal­ist writ­ing for a vari­ety of out­lets on social jus­tice issues.
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