Wage theft in California: Is the state following its own rules?

From restaurants to retail stores, from construction to car washes, an estimated $50 billion is improperly withheld from workers each year. Much of that cash is kept out of the reach of California workers. There have been major issues since 2017, and it’s still going on.

During it all, California workers have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Senior reporter Ross Palombo has shocking facts and details.

We’re talking about money that’s already earned and owed, but never ends up in your paycheck because sometimes employers don’t pay all of your hours, or all of your overtime, or your breaks, or at all. .

And even when the state steps in, we’ve found that only a fraction of workers ever see a penny.

There is a state law to help. But the data shows that California doesn’t always follow suit, and tens of thousands of employees are losing.

For years, Antonio Domínguez has been working to make his future shine, coming to this country with nothing but ambition and effort, polishing countless cars and hoping to see success shine in his reflection.

And the hardest part, he says, has been trying to get paid. Dominguez started out working at La Playa Car Wash in Culver City, washing and drying cars for six years. Until, she says, she finally realized that he was the one being taken to the cleaners.

“They wanted us to arrive early, they didn’t give us our lunches, our 10 minutes,” Dominguez said through an interpreter.

“They start thinking like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I don’t get paid for all the hours that I worked,’” said Flor Rodríguez, executive director of CLEAN Carwash Worker Center.

Flor Rodríguez helped organize 63 employees of the same car wash and filed a claim with the California Labor Commission.

And you think there are millions of dollars that car wash owes the employees?

“Oh yeah, sure,” Rodriguez said.

The state agreed, citing the car wash for $2.36 million for wage theft, saying workers were not paid for wait time, there was no overtime pay, and managers regularly altered cards. of workers’ time to reduce total hours worked.

And, if it’s happening at car washes, do you think it’s happening elsewhere?

“It’s definitely happening in a lot of other places,” Flor Rodríguez said. “Wage theft is definitely rampant.”

In fact, our CBS News analysis of data obtained by CalMatters, from the California Department of Industrial Relations, found tens of thousands of cases across California: 63,442 wage theft claims since 2017, totaling more than half a billion. dollars, to $558,617,654.

The median amount of those claims is $2,070. And similarly across the state, that equates to about a week and a half’s salary, or nine weeks of groceries, or a month’s rent, or 80 percent of an average mortgage payment.

“Definitely struggling with rent, definitely struggling with food,” Flor Rodriguez said.

Have you seen workers lose their homes, have you seen workers go hungry, and have you seen young children affected?

“Yes,” Rodriguez said. “It’s definitely a lot.”

Even if the state orders a claim to be paid, California’s own data shows that more than half, 58 percent, never see a dime. And only about a third, 28 percent, ever get paid in full. That means that of the five hundred million dollars ($558,617,654) in wages in California, our investigation found that the state has only recovered $126,853,456. That’s less than a quarter of the money, just 23 percent.

“It’s shameful,” said California state senator Maria Elena Durazo (D).

California State Senator María Elena Durazo has been working to change those numbers and change the way state regulators treat wage theft.

By law, the Labor Commission has 135 days to hear and decide a case. But our research found that the median time it takes for the state to resolve a case is three times as long: 439 days.

Does that bother you, that the state seems to be breaking its own law?

“Of course it bothers me,” Durazo said.

Is the State doing its job?

“We are not doing our job. We are not doing, the state is not doing its job. And we have to change things,” Durazo said.

He is now working on a law to speed up the process and give the state more enforcement powers to get that money back more quickly.

Santa Clara County struck out on its own and began taking away restaurant and food licenses if owners didn’t pay. He cleared almost all his cases.

“That is why our ability to collect is so important,” Durazo said. “It’s critical, and we need stronger tools so that employers don’t think it’s so easy to get away without paying, like those car wash workers.”

Car wash Antonio Dominguez’s complaint helped get the state to cite the car wash in 2019, and now, nearly four years later, he still hasn’t seen a dime. The car wash filed an appeal.

We tried to speak to the owner Hooman Nissani but only found a new manager.

“I have not seen that in my supervision and I am a manager, so,” said Hugo Flores.

And at a Beverly Hills mansion whose records show Nissani’s LLC bought in 2018, the one with an “N” on the door and cars with registered dealership plates in the driveway, the woman at the door said she never I had heard of him.

After rescheduling with us over and over again, Nissani’s attorney said he would not comment on the specific allegations made by the workers, but said they are generally untrue.

“It was very hard,” Antonio Domínguez said. “The problem is that we didn’t know where to go.”

It’s hard to keep working and waiting for justice from both your former employer and the state regulators who are supposed to keep business owners clean.

Is that fair?

“What I want people in general, workers, to know is that in this country, in this state, we have rights,” Domínguez said.

Hooman Nissani’s attorney did not provide us with any of his appeal documents, but checked earlier reports that his appeal claimed the state investigation was flawed, relied on anecdotal evidence, contained “false statements” by workers, and that fines They were “very inflated”.

The car wash also submitted its own audit supporting its case which concluded that the car wash may have overpaid its workers.

In the last 24 hours, Nissani’s lawyer says there is now a conciliation agreement signed with the state. But she didn’t send us a copy of that agreement and she didn’t give us any of the details. The state has not verified that anything was signed.

Nissani’s lawyer says: “It’s a fair deal.” And, he says, the car wash has been in compliance for years.