Last month, Domingo Zamora and ten of his fellow construction workers held in their hands the last check owed to them for unpaid overtime wages. For years, they had been underpaid for long, hard hours of work. Now, nearly two and a half years after the Washington Lawyers’ Committee filed a lawsuit on their behalf against their employer, Tito Contractors, they have finally been rightfully compensated.
The terms of Domingo’s employment with Tito Contractors had been mysterious. No one explained to him how much he would be paid, how many hours he was expected to work each day, or what the policies were on working during weekends and holidays. His responsibilities frequently changed depending on what Tito needed. He did painting, carpentry, plumbing, cleaning, floor installation, snow removal, and ceramics. His work load fluctuated based on the season and number of projects open at one time. Summers were usually the busiest, as Domingo and his co-workers fixed schools in Maryland and Virginia during the break from the school year. Some days they worked 48 hours straight, moving from one project to another—never receiving overtime.
Domingo and his co-workers, who recently migrated to the United States from different Central and South American countries, did not know that they had a right to time-and-a-half pay for overtime work. Supervisors created an environment where workers felt disempowered and pressured to accept whatever payment was offered to them. When employees complained about the long hours, their supervisors responded with a threat: “For whoever does not like it, you can leave through where you came.”
Then, in the summer of 2013, as Tito employees sought to bring a union to their workplace, they learned that they were supposed to be paid the prevailing wage. Soon they began to wonder what other rights they had that they did not know about. They discussed their workplace grievances with a representative from the Painter’s Union and, through the support of the union, connected with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee to assist in enforcing their legal rights.
In December 2013, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee (WLC) and Latham & Watkins, LLP filed a collective action complaint under federal and local wage and hour laws against Tito Contractors on behalf of seven Tito workers. Eighteen additional workers soon joined the action after receiving notice under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
For many of these workers, the prospect of suing their employer was a process filled with fear and uncertainty, especially as they had so recently connected with their legal rights. But they learned that collective actions send a strong, united message to employers that their business practices must comply with the law and respect the rights of workers. And in presenting a collective action, they were able to find strength and motivation in each other. As Domingo explained:
“This case started with a bit of fear and shame because we were fighting with a big boss but he finally fell… [T]here were a small number of us that started this but after many others joined, we arrived to a point where we grew in strength and we won. Thankful to our unity that gave us strength and encouragement to keep moving forward and after that, thankful to the lawyers that gave us a lot of strength so that we could come out victorious.”
Throughout the litigation process, the Tito workers sacrificed time and income to come to meetings, review final drafts of pleadings, and make decisions on the next steps that should be taken. They were committed to hold Maximo Pierola, the owner of Tito Contractors, Inc., accountable for years of exploitation. Then, in March 2015, the judge found that Pierola failed to pay the plaintiffs overtime wages and ordered him to pay 3 years of unpaid wages and liquidated damages to all 25 plaintiffs.
About half of the plaintiffs accepted offers of judgment, but the rest prepared for trial. They wanted to pursue overtime wages they were owed for all of the years they worked for Tito, not just the three years awarded in summary judgment. This was a challenge because, in wage theft cases, to recover unpaid wages beyond three years plaintiffs must prove that they did not know their legal rights prior to filing the lawsuit.
In this case, many of the Tito workers were not aware of their rights because they were immigrants from countries where overtime pay was rarely enforced. They had no context for knowing that there were rules that dictated how they should be paid for their work. Additionally, many of the plaintiffs began working with Tito almost immediately after arriving in the U.S., so they did not have the experience of being paid appropriately at another job.
In the end, they won. As part of a settlement, Tito paid the plaintiffs who went to trial a total of $360,873.04, including over $10,000 per worker for each year beyond the usual 3-year statute of limitations. In total, Tito paid a total of $645,703.56 to the 25 plaintiffs. Each worker recovered almost the equivalent of one year’s full pay. The workers are now investing that money in their families here in the U.S. and abroad in their home countries.
WLC Fighting Back Against Wage Theft
The story of Domingo and his fellow workers at Tito is far too common in the DC region, and across America. Unfortunately, most workers are never compensated for the wages that have been stolen from them.
The WLC is leading the battle against wage theft. Along with our clients and firm partners, we have filed individual and class action lawsuits in over 40 cases in the last 5 years. Since 2010, the WLC has recovered millions of dollars in wages for workers in the construction, restaurant, cleaning, and other industries that too often engage in wage theft. Here is the story behind one of our cases.
Wage theft comes in many different forms. It can mean not being paid adequate minimum wages, not being paid for overtime hours, or not being paid at all. One in four workers in low-wage industries are not paid adequately. In many cases these wages are simply lost because workers lack access to resources to help them recover unpaid wages, or they do not to come forward for fear of retaliation. In the undocumented workforce in particular, workers often do not complain because they do not know they are entitled to workplace protections, regardless of their documentation status. This reality is one that many employers use to underpay workers, but as Domingo explains, this is all the more reason to stand up to exploitative bosses:
“My recommendation is that just like us, if there are other people who are in a similar situation, you should unite, keep moving forward, and know that you aren’t alone. Here in this country and where ever, your immigration status doesn’t matter. You keep moving forward and the law protects you no matter where you are from. Thank you for everything and we continue always moving forward.”
For more information about WLC’s wage theft matters, or if you’ve been subject to wage theft, contact Evelyn Nunez at Evelyn_Nunez@washlaw.org or 202-319-1000.
Traducción en español vendrá próximamente.