After a hard day’s work, the last thing anyone wants is to get stiffed by their employer. It’s called wage theft and it’s illegal.
Hundreds of Illinois workers say they've been victimized, and in many cases aren't able to get the help they need from the state agency setup to do just that, an investigation by Unit 5 and The Chicago Reporter found.
Take, for example, Victor Ojeda, who worked as a machine operator at Olmarc Packaging for 13 years. He says he never missed a day of work.
One day, without notice, Ojeda said the company closed its doors. He said the company promised workers that they would pay them their unused vacation days but never did.
"I feel bad, because I feel that they lied to me," explained Ojeda, adding that he's owed $1,400 in back pay.
The plant closed in 2008, and despite the claims he and 170 other employees filed with the Illinois Department of Labor, there's been no payout.
"This agency is suppose to protect you and help you get your wages back and if it’s not working then you are out there by yourself," said Chicago Reporter journalist Maria Ines Zamudio.
She examined wage theft records from the Illinois Department of Labor, the agency in charge of keeping businesses accountable.
"The department of labor is suppose to be the first line of defense for the workers," she said. "This agency is suppose to protect you and help you get your wages back, and if it’s not working then you are out there by yourself."
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency provided The Chicago Reporter with the first 800 wage theft claims filed in 2010. Of those claims, 59 percent were found to be valid wage law violations but only a little more than a quarter of those claims led to workers getting their money back. Most worker’s claims took an average of seven months for the agency to investigate or resolve.
"These workers work paycheck to paycheck and missing one check could really put them behind," Zamudio added.
But Ojeda hasn’t given up hope on getting his money back.
"I believe, yes by fighting, because we are all fighting to get our money back," he said.
The Illinois Department of Labor was unable to resolve Ojeda and the other workers' wage claim
against Olmarc Packaging. Lacking judicial powers, the agency transferred the case to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office in 2009. They are conducting their own investigation into the workers' claim.
Unit 5 was unable to locate the former owner of Olmarc Packaging.
The Illinois Department of Labor also issued the following statement: "In 2011 (calendar year), the Illinois Department of Labor recovered $3.5 million in backwages owed to Illinois workers… This, in total, represents a recovery of wages on behalf of nearly 5,000 Illinois workers."