Imagine going to work but not getting paid. NBC 5 Investigates has found an alarming number of workers in the private sector who claim their past or current employers are stealing their wages.
Thousands of complaints are being filed with the Illinois Department Labor from employees reporting they are either not being paid for hours worked, not receiving overtime compensation or earning less than the minimum wage.
Workers call it wage theft.
“It became a constant battle of just getting my tiny bit of money,” said Alexandra Lipman, a former Chicago restaurant manager who claims her hours drastically increased at her old job but her paychecks did not.
Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL) statistics show 3,220 wage complaints were filed between 2014 and mid-2015, resulting in claims totaling $15,473,500 in lost or stolen wages. What’s more: experts who study wage theft said the damage could be much worse, as workers may be too afraid to report their lost or stolen wages for fear of losing their jobs.
“These are jobs that are sort of more hidden, more informal in some respects,” said Jacob Lesniewski of Dominican University. “I think there’s a lot of fear of retaliation.”
Noemi Hernandez said she remained at her job at a bridal store for months even though she was not earning the minimum wage. She said her former employer owes her $9,700.
“I needed the money. I needed to work and I found that to be stable,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez filed a complaint with the IDOL but said her employer eventually closed the business.
While the IDOL recovered nearly $3,000,000 in unpaid vs. lost wages for workers in fiscal year 2014, workers who file wage claims could face a time-consuming process with just a 32% success rate.
According to IDOL data based on complaints filed in 2014 and 2015, the average worker in Illinois waited 162 days – nearly five and a half months – for the IDOL to resolve his or her claim for lost wages. And out of the 3,220 claims filed, less than one-third of the workers won their case and received a check.
NBC 5 Investigates also found 144 cases where workers had to wait more than one year for the IDOL to get them the lost wages they were due.
Lipman, who said she was owed $10,000, took her former employer to court and reached a settlement. She said she became discouraged that the state would be able to help her after contacting the IDOL in 2012.
“I had everything they could have possibly needed and they told me they couldn’t look at it for eighteen months,” Lipman said.
Newly-appointed IDOL director Hugo Chaviano acknowledged the department’s time-consuming complaint resolution process and said his number one priority will be improving efficiency. According to Chaviano, the department is currently facing 7,000 unresolved claims. Some claims go back ten years.
“One of the things I’ve really been focusing on is how we can move those claims as quickly as possible,” Chaviano said.
Chaviano said he aims to speed up the resolution process by reaching more settlements with employers and revising complaint forms to be more “plain language”. He also intends to digitize the department’s wage complaint system, which currently relies mostly on paper.
But when it comes to workers only receiving a check about 32% of the time based on state records, the IDOL said it must remain balanced in its wage complaint investigations.
“Because there can be no workers if there are no employers,” Chaviano said.
Still, implementing changes could be difficult during the state’s budget impasse.
“You got to have the funding and the staffing in order to do the appropriate job,” Chaviano said.
IDOL also has a traditionally small work force, which currently includes just eight compliance officers and six wage claim specialists to investigate and process the hundreds of complaints filed each month. The IDOL also cannot force an employer to pay up.
“If they rule in favor of the worker, the employer still doesn’t have to pay and the Department of Labor cannot collect,” said Jorge Mujica of Arise Chicago, a group that fights for workers’ rights.
IDOL, however, can refer a deadbeat employer to the Illinois Attorney General.
“It would be a big mistake for an employer to think that there’s going to be no consequence,” Chaviano said.
But now - with the state in its own budget crisis - some employers who rely on state funding will no longer be able to pay their workers – meaning the IDOL may be saddled with even more claims in the future.
"Someone has to stand accountable for having people work and not paying them,” said Renee Beyers, a homemaker who recently worked for a company that relies on state funding.
And the economic impact of wage theft has a wide-ranging effect. Lesniewski’s study found when workers do not get paid, taxing authorities are not able to collect their share.
“For every dollar taken from a worker’s paycheck due to wage theft, there’s 37 cents of additional labor income lost for the entire state of Illinois,” Lesniewski said.
Despite the backlog, IDOL said it still wants to hear from everyone who is not getting paid.
“If you have been wronged regardless of your status, you have a right to file a complaint, you have a right to a hearing, you have a right to a resolution,” Chaviano said.