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Some Workers Wait Years to Resolve Wage Theft Cases

An estimated 130,000 Pennsylvania workers get illegally cheated out of pay by their bosses every week, but many workers don’t ever take action to recover the funds, and, for those that do, it can take years.

Marcos Tlacopilco, shown here in front of his restaurant Alma del Mar, in Philadelphia
Marcos Tlacopilco, shown here in front of his restaurant Alma del Mar, in Philadelphia, Monday Jan. 30, 2023. Marcus Tlacopilco won a wage theft claim in court in 2018 but never got paid the full $10,000 he was owed from his former employer, who ran a construction business.
(Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
(TNS) — Two years after his boss shorted him thousands of dollars in pay for his construction work, Marcos Tlacopilco won in court.

When he learned the judge had ordered his former boss to pay him $12,000, Tlacopilco, a father of four who also ran a fish shop in Philadelphia's Italian Market, was overcome with relief.

But nearly five years later, Tlacopilco hasn't gotten his money. He doesn't expect to ever get paid in full.

"I trust the law in the U.S. and when I see this kind of issue, they make me feel like something is wrong with the system," said Tlacopilco, who is 49.

Researchers at Temple Law's Sheller Center for Social Justice estimated that every week 130,000 Philadelphia workers get illegally cheated out of their pay by their bosses. But most won't take action to get what they're owed.

These workers are largely low-wage; many are undocumented. Some don't know their rights or aren't sure how to get help. They fear getting fired or reported to immigration enforcement — both illegal forms of retaliation.

Yet even when they do file a wage theft claim at the city Department of Labor or in court, it can take years to get the money they're due, if they even get paid at all. Enforcing court judgments and city labor determinations is a problem all over the country, including in Philadelphia, despite its powerful wage theft law that gives the Department of Labor the ability to revoke or suspend business licenses of employers who steal pay.

City and state labor offices are testing new tools to address collections, but "I don't think anyone has cracked the code," said Terri Gerstein, who runs Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program's State and Local Enforcement Project.

An Opaque Enforcement Process

For six months in 2016, Tlacopilco worked for a home remodeling company called Jaramillo Home Improvement run by a man he met at a work site named Jaime Jaramillo. Tlacopilco would work six or seven days a week, usually eight hours a day but sometimes more. In exchange, he was supposed to get a day rate of $200.

But after a few months, Jaramillo started missing payments, Tlacopilco said. Eventually, Tlacopilco got a paycheck of $5,000. The check bounced.

Tlacopilco said Jaramillo told him not to worry, that he'd get paid once they finished the next job.

As Jaramillo's debt reached $9,000, Tlacopilco couldn't wait any longer. He quit and contacted a legal aid lawyer.

In 2018, the judge ruled in Tlacopilco's favor, ordering Jaramillo to pay the maximum amount in Municipal Court: $12,000, which included wages plus damages.

"I feel powerful when I won," Tlacopilco said.

Then came the hard part.

Enforcing these kinds of court judgments is a complex process that involves working with the Sheriff's Office and investigating the employer's assets — looking for properties and bank accounts. The collections process is highly inaccessible for workers who aren't represented by a lawyer, said Rhiannon DiClemente, an attorney who works on wage theft cases at Community Legal Services. Since it can be difficult to collect on judgments, which include attorney's fees, private lawyers tend not to take on small-claims wage theft cases.

Tlacopilco's lawyer, Seth Lyons of Community Legal Services, was able to find one bank account of Jaramillo's, which resulted in a $500 payment.

Reached by phone, Jaramillo told The Inquirer that he intended to pay Tlacopilco. "Of course I am," he said. "Marcos is a good guy." He said he didn't pay the judgment because he never got paid by a customer and didn't have the money, adding that after he paid the first $500, he got really sick.

"My health has been deteriorating since that," he said.

How Philadelphia Has Failed to Pursue 'Bad Actors'

In 2020, a barista at Northern Liberties cafe One Shot Coffee filed a complaint with the city saying her boss had stolen $424 in tips. When the city ordered owner Melissa Baruno to pay the barista, Baruno stopped responding, according to the Department of Labor's Office of Worker Protections.

The city put One Shot Coffee on a list of "Bad Actors," in an attempt to shame employers into complying. But it was only after another worker filed a wage theft complaint and the city threatened to file a lawsuit in court against Baruno that the owner paid both former employees — two years after the first complaint.

Baruno denied wrongdoing and said they paid the workers because they wanted the case to be done.

The Department of Labor has several enforcement tools at its disposal beyond placing employers on its Bad Actors list.

The department can suspend or revoke business licenses. But it has never done so.

It can file a court case against an employer. It did this for the first time last month, against an employer that had been on the Bad Actors list for two years.

Instead of just asking an employer to make a worker whole, the city can levy penalties to deter employers from violating the law again. As a policy, the city does not assess penalties on small businesses.

Not imposing penalties is problematic, said Jennifer Lee, who runs Temple University's Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, which wrote a 2015 report on wage theft in Philadelphia.

"It doesn't send any kind of message to employers that what they've done is wrong," she said, "and it doesn't stop them from rolling the dice and doing it again in the future."

Candace Chewning, director of the Office of Worker Protections, said 10 employers have not complied with the city's determinations since 2018. The city has issued roughly 115 violations since then.

Last year, her office hired a dedicated staff attorney to assist with enforcement. "We're still building out the office in a lot of ways," she said, noting that the city Department of Labor became permanent only in 2020. It employs nine full time and has a budget of $1.7 million.

When it comes to determining how to proceed with employers who don't comply, Chewning said it's case by case. The office has run into hurdles: Sometimes employers on the Bad Actor list have already shut down or are unlicensed. Sometimes the office can't find the individuals behind a business.

Though the city hasn't shut any businesses down yet, "to be clear, it is a part of our conversations," Chewning said.

The city continues to pursue unresponsive Bad Actor businesses, she said. "We are looking for them. We intend to exhaust those enforcement methods in order to find people."

Two Years and Two Courts to Get Paid

Michael Ferrin's boss hadn't paid him for months when he decided he couldn't afford to wait any longer.

For four years, he'd made about $20 an hour repairing antique furniture out of a Kensington woodshop run by Peter Steliga. Steliga consistently paid him late, according to Ferrin.

One month after Ferrin quit, Steliga still owed him $6,400. Ferrin eventually contacted a legal aid lawyer.

In April 2021, he won his case in Municipal Court, but the judge ordered Steliga to pay only $2,000 and imposed no penalties. Ferrin sent Steliga's check back and appealed the case to Common Pleas Court.

By then, it had been more than a year since he quit and Ferrin had moved out of Philly. He wasn't sure he'd ever get paid what he was owed. But he didn't want to drop the case.

"I didn't want (Steliga) to feel like he had gotten away with it and do it to someone else," Ferrin said.

Last May, the parties settled and Steliga paid Ferrin $5,300, a figure that included lumber storage fees Steliga said Ferrin owed him.

In court filings, Steliga denied ever paying Ferrin late. In a text message, Steliga said only, "If you are concerned about the facts or the truth you should be reading the transcript from the court."

Ferrin, who's now 40 and back in Philly, is still woodworking but now he's self-employed — a longtime goal.

Tlacopilco, too, now runs his own business — Alma del Mar, a restaurant named for his wife, Alma Romero — in the Italian Market, near his fish shop. He was featured on Netflix's "Queer Eye" in 2020.

In an interview at Alma del Mar, with a mural featuring the Queer Eye cast behind him and his daughter, Karen, helping to translate from Spanish, Tlacopilco, who emigrated from Puebla, Mexico, 25 years ago, called out to fellow immigrants.

"I know that you come here with a clean slate, trying to fight for your families and give your all to jobs," he said, "but remember that there are always good people in the world but there's also bad people."

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LL
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