Agata and Elibieta started working at Bright Star Cleaning Service in June 2006. The job was a “live-in” arrangement. They both lived in the same room and were charged $300 per month each for rent and utilities. The two women shared a small room with only a closet, a small chest of drawers and two beds. They shared a restroom, with one toilet and one sink, with six other women who lived on the same floor. There was another building with eight other women who worked for Bright Star Cleaning Service.
At the beginning of their employment, Agata and Elibieta were required to attend a training for which they never got paid. Every day they were driven to various houses by Ms. Ericson or a driver employed by the service. They would leave their dormitory around 7:00 a.m. and return between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. They cleaned two to three houses per day. They usually worked six days a week, for 10 to 11 hours a day. On Saturdays, they worked a shorter day. They were always paid a flat rate of $7 per hour, no matter how many hours they worked throughout the week. Agata and El¿bieta claim there was only one week in which they worked less than 49 hours and they were never paid for overtime. Their payment was in checks that Ms. Erickson received from customers.
When Agata and El¿bieta quit in September 2006, they were not paid for their last week’s work (September 25th to 29th) nor several months worth of overtime. Agata and Elbieta had kept detailed notes on all their work. Agata and El¿bieta repeatedly contacted Ms. Ericson to receive their money back, but their former employer avoided any contact with them.
Finally, in January after many attempts to get their final paycheck, the women sought help at the Chicago Interfaith Workers Center from Anka, the young woman whose first job was at a car wash. Initially, Anka sent a letter on behalf of the former employees to Ms Ericson asking for the workers’ unpaid wages. Ms. Ericson ignored the letter. Several weeks later in February, Anka mailed letters to customers using the services of Bright Star Cleaning Service asking them not to use the company until the owner paid Agata and El¿bieta.
March was a busy month. Early in the month, Anka talked with Ms. Ericson. She admitted that she did not pay Agata and Elibieta. She offered three reasons:
1) They were her friends and they had “special arrangements;”
2) Agata and Elibieta should have been more grateful for a job and place to live – in fact, perhaps they should really have paid her for helping them get settled in a new country; and
3) Agata and Elibieta were independent contractors and not eligible for overtime. Ms. Ericson offered to meet with the former employees as long as no one else was present. Agata and Elibieta refused to meet unless there was at least one witness.
Because things seemed stalled, Anka contacted the Wage and Hour liaison with the Chicago Area Worker Rights Initiative, a government and community partnership that the Interfaith Worker Center helped convene. An official complaint for the last paycheck was filed with the Illinois Department of Labor and a complaint about health and safety issues filed with OSHA.
Instead of paying the workers the money, the owner hired an attorney, Beata Swietowski of Swietowski & Swietowski, P.C. who sent a letter accusing Anka of “unlawful actions”and threatening a libel suit. A volunteer attorney with the Workers Center sent a response letter explaining that “truth is an absolute defense against the claim of defamation.”
Finally, at the end of March, the owner decided she would pay the workers. Ms. Ericson brought the checks over to the Workers Center and gave them to Agata and El¿bieta, who subsequently dropped the charges with the IL Department of Later. Meanwhile, the OSHA complaint was forwarded to the Aurora office for processing. The owner, who was clearly still angry — perhaps because of the OHSA complaint, left a threatening voice mail on the workers’ cellphones after she paid the money.
Anka also checked to see if Bright Start Cleaning Service had worker’s compensation coverage. Ms. Ericson had only gotten it as of February, 2007. She did not have it the previous summer when 16 cleaning women had been working for her.
Finally in June, 2007, the owner agreed to pay a penalty of $420 for not providing information about hazardous chemicals, not providing training for how to use the hazardous chemicals and not keeping safety data sheets.
The workers got their money. The employer finally purchased worker’s compensation insurance. And perhaps the employer will be a bit more careful about chemicals in the future (although it is doubtful that $420 produces much incentive to do the right thing). The workers learned that they could get employers to pay their wages. Agata and El¿bieta now work for themselves. They still work hard, but nobody takes advantage of them. They have both become members and active leaders in the Workers Center, helping other women like themselves.
Workers centers are a front-line defense against wage theft. They are the intersection of public and private efforts to ensure that workers are paid. Even though the current versions of workers centers are relatively new models for helping workers who are being exploited in the workplace, the idea of safe centers where immigrants and low-wage worker could seek help and learn organizing skills is not new. Workers centers are in the long tradition of centers that support workers challenging wage theft and other forms of exploitation and advocating unions, ethical legislation and public understanding of worker issues.