Ron Stone and Francisco Berrios put their lives on the line for their country. When both men, who are veterans with service-connected disabilities, tried to make a living they were treated like slaves and their wages were stolen by their billionaire employers.
Wage theft—the illegal underpayment or non-payment of workers' wages—is a national epidemic. Workers like Stone and Berrios toil for long hours and some unethical employers pocket the money that should go to the employees who create the company’s profit.
Both Stone and Berrios were placed to work at the Sandman Motel in Phoenix by the U.S. Vets Initiative (a federally funded organization that provides housing, counseling and services to veterans) at the end of 2008.
Stone served in the Air Force and Berrios spent three tours in Vietnam and has a Purple Heart medal. Instead of honoring these vets’ service, the motel’s billionaire owners, Morar and Ushaban Ahir, treated them like slaves, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the workers. The owners promised each man an apartment on the property (supposed value: $500) and $75-$100 per week in exchange for working six 12-hour shifts per week and being on-call and on property 24/7. The “apartment” turned out to be a 10x10 rat-infested room with no access to a kitchen. The men were not allowed visitors and could not leave the property without permission.
In addition to hiring vets from the U.S. Veterans Initiative, the hotel owner also hires unemployed homeless people willing to work for housing, Stone says. Diane Vasquez agreed to work for the hotel for free room and was not paid for her work. The only maid on the property, she was responsible for cleaning all the rooms, and maintaining the yard. She was forced to live off of food stamps, Stone says.
“They would pull people out of the homeless shelters and veterans’ shelters,” Stone says, “and if we complained they would say that they had 100 other people lined up for these jobs if we didn’t want them. We were treated like slaves.”
Stone was fired in 2010 in retaliation for filing complaints with the Department of Employee Services (DES) and Berrios was fired in 2011 in retaliation for suing his employer for back wages, according to the suit.
In February 2011, Stone sought out the Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice, an affiliate of the Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) for help after he had been turned down by the state DES, the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Department of Labor. “They told me the case was either too small or that there was no wrongdoing. Private attorneys refused to take the case without pay upfront,” Stone says. “But I was determined to get justice,” he says.
With the support of the Interfaith Alliance and the IWJ-affiliated Arizona Worker Rights Center, Stone, Berrios and Valesquez documented the abuses they suffered and worked together to build a legal case and find a lawyer. Their attorney calculated that the three workers were owed more than $300,000 in back wages. “I don’t know what we would have done without the Worker Rights Center,” Stone says.
More than 16,000 workers like Stone come to IWJ worker centers for help each year. Eighty percent are victims of wage theft. Wage theft happens in every industry, victimizing millions of workers.
In April 2011, Stone, Berrios and Valesquez filed a federal lawsuit for back wages. The lawsuit was settled in a pre-trial conference last November for $100,000 for minimum wage and overtime violations. The workers received their last payment on March 31 this year.
Although they did not receive all the back pay they deserved, Stone says the fight was worth it. “We got some semblance of justice. It’s hard to understand why people just don’t do the right thing,” he says.
Interfaith worker advocates, ethical businesses and community leaders are getting tough laws against wage theft passed. But more needs to be done. In 2008, the National Employment Law Project and a team of advocates, policy groups, and academic research centers, including IWJ, undertook a survey of workers in three large cities to document the extent of wage theft. What they found was shocking:
- 64% of low-wage workers experience wage theft each week
- 26% are paid under the legal minimum wage
- 76% of workers owed overtime go unpaid or underpaid
Low-wage workers lose $51 per week to wage theft, or $2,634 per year, according to the report.