For Many Undocumented Workers, There’s No Such Thing As Minimum Wage

Sebastián González de León

Immigrants and people of color tend to get more low paying jobs, placing them at more risk of facing any wage violation.(wavebreakmedia /

Wage vio­la­tions are com­mon­place in Chica­go. They affect low-paid work­ers in indus­tries like con­struc­tion, food ser­vice and retail. Immi­grants and peo­ple of col­or are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble because they tend to work in more low-income jobs. David, who request­ed a pseu­do­nym to pro­tect his safe­ty, told In These Times his story.

Twen­ty-three-year-old David migrat­ed to Chica­go in late 2017. His first job was as a bus­boy at a restau­rant on the North­east Side. His job was to clean tables and bring water to cus­tomers. He said at the gig, where he worked ear­li­er this year, he was being paid $6 dol­lars per hour plus tips.

Accord­ing to David, he wasn’t receiv­ing tips direct­ly from cus­tomers. Instead, he was told he would get a per­cent­age of net sales. This tip­ping method was nev­er ful­ly explained and left him in a vul­ner­a­ble posi­tion. Some days, he says, he would receive no tips at all. He would be tak­en off the floor by the own­er to clean the apart­ments above the restau­rant dur­ing his shift. She made me clean every apart­ment. Yet they had noth­ing to do with my job. Besides, they were not even part of the restau­rant,” David recalls.

Although cowork­ers told him to object to unre­lat­ed work requests, they also warned him that refus­ing could cost him his job.

In mid-Feb­ru­ary, David said he was sick and the only employ­ee on the restau­rant floor. His boss told him that he had to clean the win­dows of the apart­ments from the out­side. There was a snow storm that week. I had a pret­ty bad and notice­able cold,” David says. Despite protest­ing that he was too sick, David says the own­er of the restau­rant made him work outside.

Know­ing he was in a pre­car­i­ous posi­tion, David con­tin­ued to clean all of the apart­ments and their respec­tive out­door win­dows. As such, he was unable to col­lect tips because he didn’t work the restau­rant floor. As a result of being out­side, his sick­ness wors­ened and he became fever­ish, he says. This proved to be too much so he could not go to work the next day. The retal­i­a­tion for his absence was swift. His shifts were cut, and some­times man­age­ment would fail to tell him until he arrived at his sched­uled time — after a one-hour com­mute. He nev­er received an expla­na­tion, he says.

David quit. But he argues that he was tech­ni­cal­ly forced out when his employ­er cut his shifts to one day a week. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for him, he still had to keep in con­tact with his employ­er because they had not paid him for all of his work to date. When he received his pay­check, he says a cowork­er told him that he should make sure that he was being paid for all of his work because he sus­pect­ed that his hours were not ful­ly account­ed for, but he did not want to engage any longer with man­age­ment. He took his $450 pay­check for one month’s work and used it all to pay his rent.

David com­ment­ed that, between tips and pay­check, he nev­er received close to a com­plete min­i­mum wage.

The wage-theft epidemic

Wage theft is an-all-too com­mon phe­nom­e­non in immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties in Chica­go. Indi­vid­u­als born out­side the Unit­ed States are 1.5 times more like­ly to expe­ri­ence a labor violation.

Three ordi­nances are active in Chica­go to avoid wage vio­la­tions. The first one dic­tates that if an employ­er com­mits wage theft, they can lose their com­mer­cial license. The sec­ond states that min­i­mum wage in Chica­go must increase every year until 2019. The third ordi­nance grants one hour of sick leave, per every 40 worked hours.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these ordi­nances have not been ful­ly able to dis­suade busi­ness own­ers from steal­ing wages or vio­lat­ing labor laws. A study pub­lished by the Cen­ter for Urban Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go found that the labor laws are reg­u­lar­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly vio­lat­ed. This makes David’s case com­mon­place among low-income work­ers: 15 per­cent of the tipped work­ers in Chica­go that were inter­viewed nev­er received a full min­i­mum wage.

Low-income work­ers are the ones who face a big­ger risk. Immi­grants and peo­ple of col­or tend to get more low-pay­ing jobs, plac­ing them at more risk of fac­ing any wage vio­la­tion. The prob­lem, though, affects all low-income work­ers. Twen­ty-six per­cent of all the respon­dents were paid less than the required min­i­mum wage and 23 per­cent had to per­form off-the-clock” tasks, among oth­er violations.

Jorge Múji­ca, the Strate­gic Cam­paigns Orga­niz­er from Arise Chica­go, argues that wage theft can hap­pen in every indus­try. Yet he points out three par­tic­u­lar ones: con­struc­tion, restau­rants and retail. Múji­ca says that wage theft is an epi­dem­ic.”

It hap­pens a lot, for exam­ple, in small laun­dry busi­ness­es, small restau­rants, small stores, and fam­i­ly-owned places,” explains Mújica.

David nev­er raised his voice. He said he did not want any trou­ble because he feared retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment. The num­bers in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois study show that reprisal from employ­ers is fre­quent. Fir­ing, sus­pen­sion, threats to call immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, slash­ing work hours or pay­ment are com­mon for immi­grants and those in low-income jobs.

Tak­ing action is dif­fi­cult. The dis­missal rate of wage vio­la­tion cas­es that are filed, is rather high: 41 per­cent in 2010 to 58 per­cent in 2014. Our famous ordi­nance against wage theft, has nev­er been enforced,” Múji­ca tells In These Times. The frus­tra­tions of activists like Múji­ca or fears like the ones David has are not unfound­ed. “[I would like] that work­ers were aware and had knowl­edge [of their rights] and were orga­nized,” Múji­ca adds, and that the gov­ern­ment had the means to enforce and over­see the laws.”

Sebastián González de León y León is a jour­nal­ist, pro­duc­er and poet. He moved from Mex­i­co City and now lives in Chica­go. His work has appeared in Noticieros Tele­visa, and Plumas Atómi­cas, among oth­ers. He can be reached at @Sebuscape on Twitter.
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