Wage Theft at Mom and Pop Stores—and How to Fight It

Kari Lydersen

Maria Garcia started working at Huaraches Dona Chio, a popular family-owned restaurant in Chicago, after befriending a relative of the family at classes at a community center on the city’s North Side.

She was the only person working there who was not part of the family. But the relationship soured, and now Garcia says the restaurant owes her more than $7,000 in unpaid overtime and back wages over three years because, among other things, she says she was not given a raise when the Illinois minimum wage increased from $7.75 to $8.25.

A co-owner of the restaurant, Sofia Calvente, told me that she has nothing personally against Garcia but thinks Garcia is lying and that the dispute erupted because of personal issues between the 34-year-old mother and other members of the Calvente family. Since, like many small businesses, the restaurant did not keep detailed records or pay stubs; the dispute basically comes down to one person’s word against another.

The workers’ rights group Arise Chicago often deals with situations like this. The group, affiliated with the national organization Interfaith Worker Justice, helps workers combat wage theft and other labor law violations at workplaces of various sizes and types. As I reported for the Chicago News Cooperative in December, such problems may be more prevalent at small, independent businesses than major corporations. And addressing such problems at very small businesses presents specific challenges.

When there is little documentation involved, Arise organizers interview other employees and ask workers to keep detailed notes and schedules, either on a daily basis if they still work at the location, or reconstructed from memory if they do not.

Often workers employed at small, community businesses are reluctant to complain about wage theft or other labor law violations, and often they don’t know their rights and/​or they feel indebted to employers who they connected with through family, friends, landlords or neighbors.

Garcia was empowered to speak up by a previous experience, where Arise helped her obtain thousands of dollars of unpaid wages from the chain restaurant Le Peep.

Arise organizer Jamie Hayes told me Le Peep had classified Garcia as an independent contractor” even though she worked in the kitchen washing dishes and other tasks, not the kind of work typically contracted out.” Hayes noted that under Illinois (and other states’) law, it is employers’ responsibility to provide pay stubs to workers, even if they are paying in cash.

When employers don’t provide this information, it’s often because they are not following FLSA (the Fair Labor Standards Act) and other relevant laws. An employee can’t really force their employer to provide them with this information, especially if the employer is trying to evade the law. Essentially, this law acknowledges that it is the employer’s responsibility to pay employees in a transparent manner.

Hayes described how the group tries to work with employers to resolve disputes:

We don’t assume that we know all the facts without talking to the boss. Every once in a while, there is simply a miscommunication: the boss genuinely didn’t realize that worker wasn’t being paid properly, or the worker didn’t realize that lunch breaks were unpaid.

So we always follow the protocol of calling and then writing to companies first, in order to hear their side of the story before organizing delegations or protests, or filing complaints with government agencies. Once I have a chance to speak with management, more often than not, they actually corroborate the employees’ stories, for example: Yeah, he was at work 60 hours/​week, but most of the time he was sitting there doing nothing, so I shouldn’t have to pay him for all of those hours”…or She’s an independent contractor, so I don’t have to pay overtime.”… or We had an agreement.”

Garcia now works at another small restaurant, where she says she is paid and treated fairly. Miguel Brito, a Chicago worker in a similar situation whom I’ve written about previously on this blog, also was the only outside employee at a small business where he’d gotten work through word of mouth.

Brito said he was owed many thousands of dollars by the grocery store where he worked as a butcher; the owner ended up paying him $7,500 after protests and community pressure from Arise. Brito told me he thinks many workers don’t understand the law or their rights, or they are afraid to speak up. He’s trying to rally workers to organize at his current workplace, where he has also received previously unpaid backpay thanks to organizing efforts. 

While such situations may be especially prevalent in insular immigrant communities, that is by no means the only place they occur. Arise organizers also highlight the case of Rita Clopton, who worked at a funeral home on Chicago’s South Side as part of a transitional jobs program billed as a social service, but in reality an exploitative situation, as Arise workers center director Adam Kader described to me. Kader said no contract or written agreement about Clopton’s responsibilities and wages was signed, and she was paid much less than she was legally owed. He said:

After repeated delegations, visits, phone calls, and an Illinois Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division complaint, Ms. Clopton received her legal and just compensation in August of 2011, because she refused to give up.

Support this work

Reader donations, many as small as just $5, are what fund the work of writers like this—and keep our content free and accessible to everyone. If you support this work, will chip in to help fund it?

It only takes a minute to donate. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue