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Some Connecticut workers are getting ripped off by their employers. Why isn’t the state doing more about it?

José Luis Martínez
CT Mirror

Thousands of Connecticut residents file complaints about unpaid wages every year. But the state Department of Labor is understaffed — meaning there’s a six-month backlog for the cases.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s José Luis Martínez to discuss his article, “Wage theft in CT: Millions stolen from workers since 2019,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, José. You write that a bill that would have increased the number of wage theft investigators in Connecticut failed to pass the state legislature this year. Could you first tell us what wage theft is? And who is the most affected by this?

JLM: Yeah, so wage theft is when an employer promises you a certain amount of money and doesn't pay you. And that can be based on an individual contract you made with your employer, or just overtime and minimum wage laws. If you're getting paid $12 an hour here in Connecticut, that's wage theft.

WSHU: Because the minimum wage in Connecticut is $15.

JLM: As of this year, yeah. And if you don't get your bonus commission, that's wage theft. And there's lots of types of wage theft, and we highlight some in the story. One attorney I spoke to is an attorney who has dealt with thousands of these cases. He said this mainly affects, you know, immigrants, undocumented immigrants, people of color, people whose English is not their first language, women.

WSHU: You had Lucas from Bridgeport as someone you profiled in this case. Could you tell us a little bit about him and what his situation was?

JLM: He was a former school teacher back in Nicaragua. But in many Latin American countries, job availability is really scarce. So he came here, he sought political asylum. And in his first year here, like many other recent immigrants here, he looked for a day's work, whether that's construction, paint jobs, electricity. Usually the employer — in this case, the contractor — is like, hey, I'll pay you, let's say, $200 for the day. Can you do a paint job? And in Lucas’s case, he was asked to do a paint job and an electricity job. And after a few days of work, after about a week, he just didn't get paid what he was owed. And it's been years since, and the employer hasn't paid him back his full wages.

WSHU: He earned about $3,000 and he was only paid about $1,200?

JLM: Yeah, there's $1,200 left. The main thing that happened at the beginning is Lucas didn't know what to do. He didn't know what avenues were available to try to get his money back. Should he go to the police? Is there a Department of Labor? And that's what we were trying to explain in the story, that there are various avenues. And so that's why we wrote that part, because a lot of people don't even know that they can file a wage complaint. There's a lot of caveats to go into, but he finally figured it out with some help from a local advocacy organization, the Connecticut Worker Center. They told him, hey, it's been three years, let's file a lawsuit and let's just see what the judge says.

WSHU: You can file with the state authorities or with federal authorities. How does that work?

JLM: Yeah, so it depends on the little things of the case. So for example, if you're getting paid $12 an hour, you can't file with the federal authorities because the federal minimum wage is not the same as the state’s.

WSHU: Federal minimum wage is $7.25.

JLM: Right. And compared to the state minimum wage, which was just changed to $15. You really got to look at the little details. Let's say you're getting paid below the federal minimum wage. You can file with either, but it's better if you file with the state Department of Labor because you'll be able to recover more money. The state Department of Labor also covers more things, like unpaid bonuses. The federal Department of Labor will not look at that. And then some other little things that come across are statute of limitations, which just basically means how far back you're able to file for. And for the state, it's two years; for the federal Department of Labor, it's two years if it was accidental and three years if it was a willful violation. So that's why they recommend people seek help.

WSHU: Now, José, you spent some time looking at the system. And what did you find with the Connecticut Labor Department, the fact that they didn't have enough people to process the cases, there was a huge backlog of cases. And something was almost done this year. However, it didn't seem to make it through the legislature. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

JLM: Yeah. So when we were covering the session this year, we noticed that there was this bill that would increase the number of wage theft inspectors, and we were curious if there had been internal discussion about that. And so, you know, we started requesting data, we started asking for numbers. And we saw that the Connecticut Department of Labor receives thousands of cases a year, and they only have two dozen staff members. In one of the committee reports, the Department of Labor said they had a four- to six-month case backlog. And so then, given that, we were wondering, okay, so why didn't this pass, given that the Department of Labor says that there is a backlog? At the end of the day, it just came down to, as Rep. Roland Lemar from New Haven explained, it's competing interests. Not everybody got what they wanted, and not everybody always gets what they want in any budget whenever it's voted on.

WSHU: Yeah, it appears during budget negotiations the Republicans were saying there were so many unfilled positions, why talk about new positions when we haven't filled all the ones that are on the books? The budget deal that was struck ended up reducing some of the money that was put in for jobs because they could not fill them. But Lemar feels that this will come up again next year?

JLM: Yeah. He said he's optimistic. He's hoping that next year when there's more space in the budget, legislators decide to move forward and make space for it. Some advocacy orgs and even a wage enforcement officer at the Department of Labor were pretty disappointed. They're like, we have a ton of money in surplus. Why can't we pass this? We're in a backlog. And so some advocacy groups are thinking, we have to mobilize more, we have to put pressure on them. And so that's where it's at. As of now, the staff remains about the same. Advocacy groups are just hoping that next session or in a special session, that some movement is made.

WSHU: In the meantime, what's the situation for Lucas?

JLM: Lucas is still waiting. In fact, he has a second case where he's owed wages, but he hasn't been able to get ahold of that employer. This is not rare. Wage theft cases happen all the time. I've been covering wage theft for a few years now. And back in Texas, and you know, here in Connecticut, speaking to different folks, it happens all the time. It happens every day. And sometimes it's hard to make a case because there's not enough documentation and evidence that enforcement officials need, but it is happening every day and not just to immigrants or undocumented immigrants, but it happens to restaurant servers and to white-collar workers. Everyone just needs to keep an eye out — okay, am I getting paid for my hourly work, my salaried work, my bonus, my commission? All those sorts of things.

WSHU: Do you have to be documented to be able to take advantage of the provisions to go after someone who's owing you wages?

JLM: No, immigration status does not matter. You just need to have evidence. But immigration status does not play a role into whether you can file with the state or federal or even go to court.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.