DENVER, Colo. — A day’s work should mean a day’s pay, but for many Americans, that simple transaction is a complicated ordeal.
“It's a cancer in our industry, and it's everywhere you look,” said Juan Arellano of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters.
He’s talking about wage theft.
Wage theft is taking billions of dollars out of families’ pockets each year. One Denver construction worker, who asked we call him Guzman, never received $4,000 he earned.
He spoke with us in Spanish, and fellow Council representative, Edgar Jauregui, translated his experience.
“When he tried to cash his checks, they started bouncing at the banks, and it was impossible to cash,” Jauregui translated for Guzman.
Guzman is now a father of two, and he was worried speaking out would keep him from getting jobs in the future, but he decided he couldn’t stay silent about the crime that’s hurt his family.
“I felt sad because at that moment, I had my wife pregnant, and I was so stressed out. I felt like the world was crumbling down on me, and most of all, it isn't fair. I had to find a way to survive,” said Guzman.
So, he reached out to his union for help. He found Arellano, and Jauregui prepared to jump into action.
“It is a crime, and the problem is the people, they get used to it. The problem is they're not, they don't have the knowledge,” said Jauregui of why many workers don’t report wage theft in the first place.
Another big reason workers don’t speak up is fear.
“When this situation happens, they're afraid,” said Jauregui. “They don't want to talk. They think there's going to be some kind of like revenge against them.”
There are dozens of ways wage theft can happen. It can be as simple as working overtime but getting paid your normal hourly rate. It can also involve being asked to work off the clock, not getting worker’s compensation for an injury, or not being paid for a meal break.
In Guzman’s case of lost wages, he took his employer to court and won. However, more than a year after the legal victory, he hasn’t seen a dime.
“It does us no good to hold that up as a trophy when in the end, we have no money,” said Guzman.
As he waits, hoping to one day see his wages, this is happening to millions of more workers.
Wage theft is the costliest crime in the country. It costs the country $15 billion in lost wages per year. That number is more than car thefts, burglaries, and other larcenies—combined.
The extreme prevalence of this issue is why Jauregui and Arellano visit job sites throughout Colorado every day.
They use a GoPro to capture videos of worksite conditions, to document wage theft cases, and to educate workers about wage theft before it occurs.
“It does take documentation,” said Arellano. “There is a great level of difficulty to prove, but we can get there. We can get there to where, you know, the people responsible for this can be tried and brought to justice."
It’s justice Arellano hopes to see more often with the help of a new law passed in his city.
Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer passed a bill to make wage theft under $2,000 a crime.
“The vast majority of the cases are under $2,000 and are never prosecuted,” said Sawyer. “So, that's extremely concerning.”
She said she believes the hundreds of cases that are reported each year under $2,000 are just the tip of the iceberg, and she hopes this law will encourage other workers to come forward.
“Families are struggling to put food on the table in Denver. They’re struggling to put food on the table all over the country.”
But with some help, these families could get the living they already earned and have the life they deserve.
“We've got to act to support them and do what we can, not only because if you work, you should get paid for that work, but because also we recognize the extraordinary pressure these families are under right now,” Sawyer said. “We're not going to allow for this anymore, and we're going to stand up for our workers.”
If you think you’ve been a victim of wage theft, report the crime immediately. Resources HERE can help you figure out if you’ve been impacted and how to fight for your wages.