Adrian worked for approximately one year at a Mexican restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. The restaurant caters to students, faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin and state employees—there is a second location in Lacrosse. “I did some of everything—cooking, dishwashing, bringing chips to the tables, whatever I was asked to do.” Adrian was told that he was not an hourly worker, but was “salaried.” He was paid $50 a day in cash, but given the number of hours that he worked, came out to less than the Wisconsin minimum wage, further more, Adrian was never paid overtime, and received no benefits. There were approximately 15 people working at the restaurant at any given time, and as far as the worker could find out, were mostly all paid off the books, including one underage youth.
Adrian had an argument with the supervisor at the business, who screamed at him and told him to pick up a pile of dirty dishes. “Given that it was something I had not been hired to do, I told him he could put the plates where the sun doesn’t shine.” Then he was told he would be “laid off” unless he took a pay cut of $100 per week. “The boss told me he had no work, but I could clean the toilets if I was willing to take the pay cut.” Adrian refused, and asked for the remainder of the pay he was owed, but the owner didn’t pay Adrian anything for his last two week’s work.
A friend told Adrian that the Madison Workers’ Rights Center could help him recover the wages stolen from him. After going through his hours and his pay history with Carlos Miranda, a worker advocate at the center, Adrian and the center determined that he had been cheated about $5,100 over the course of his employment at the restaurant. But the owner just laughed when Carlos called him on Adrian’s behalf. He claimed that Adrian had destroyed property. In the end, Adrian chose to settle for $1,400, less than 30% of what he was owed. On the day of the interview, Carlos was told by the owner that he could pick up $700. Adrian agreed to take this and to continue to fight for the rest of his pay the following week.
“The leverage we have is that these wage thieves don’t want the state finding out they have been violating wage and hour laws,” said Carlos. “So even though they laugh at us, they negotiate. Without back-up, these workers are just told to take a hike.”
“I haven’t found another job,” said Adrian. “I don’t want anything more than what I earned—to be paid for the work I did. I’m living with my brother, but I can’t pay him any rent. I came to this country to help my family, but now I have nothing to send my mother in Mexico.