one quick way to fix this problem is to make it LEGAL for these people to work. under the current system where it is technically illegal for them to work it encourages people to rip them off.

Phoenix treats cheating laborers as a criminal act

Daniel Gonzlez The Arizona Republic Feb. 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Standing in a grimy north Phoenix parking lot one chilly morning last week, Nemecio Martinez had no idea whether he would get hired. All around him were dozens of men waiting for the next pickup truck to roll in looking for day laborers. In a good week, Martinez might get hired six days. In a bad week, only three.

Martinez said unsteady work is part of life for day laborers. What is harder to swallow, he said, is getting ripped off by unscrupulous employers who hire workers and then don't pay. "These kinds of employers are thieves," said Martinez, 37, who lost $560 in wages after being stiffed twice this year.

A byproduct of overwhelming waves of undocumented immigration and a demanding growth market, wage theft is rampant among low-wage workers. Especially for day laborers like Martinez who form an integral part of the Valley's workforce and get paid under the table.

The problem has become chronic enough that now Phoenix and a few other cities across the country are treating non-payment of wages as a crime, rather than merely a civil matter.

In Arizona's heated immigration debate, anti-illegal immigrant advocates say that day laborers sully streets and drive down wages and that some cities, including Phoenix, have taken action against them for gathering in unauthorized locations. By preying on them, however, employers who cheat workers out of pay gain an unfair advantage over honest employers and push wages down even further, day-labor advocates say.

The workers often have no idea where to turn for help. In many cases, the victims are undocumented and reluctant to report abuses to authorities out of fear of being deported.

Cheated twice

Every morning, Martinez, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, is out looking for work before daybreak. He is one of the dozens of day laborers who congregate in the parking lot of a strip mall behind Tacos Feliz, a Mexican restaurant off Hatcher and Cave Creek roads in north Phoenix.

He recalled the two times he had been stiffed by employers in January.

First, a man from a landscaping company hired him to cut lawns for the day.

At the end of eight hours of work, Martinez expected to receive $80. Instead, the man promised to come back the next day and hire Martinez again. He never showed.

The second time was worse. A man driving a beige Silverado pickup pulled into the lot looking for construction laborers. He hired Martinez for three weeks to help build home foundations. At the end of each Friday, the man handed Martinez a check for $480. Except on the third Friday. That day, he promised to bring the check to Martinez's apartment later that afternoon. He didn't show. Martinez tried to call him the next day to find out about his money.

"Don't worry," Martinez recalled the contractor saying. "Your check is safe. I'll bring it tomorrow." Martinez never saw the man again. He was out $500. Martinez is hardly alone.

A nationwide study of day laborers at hiring sites in 20 states, including Arizona, found that violations of basic labor standards are common in the day-labor market. Wage theft was the most typical, according to the study released in January.

Nearly half of all day laborers reported they had been either cheated or underpaid by employers the previous two months, the study said.

Police step in

Eight years ago, Gail LaGrander and Graciela Mera, two Phoenix immigrant advocates, began documenting cases of day laborers who had been cheated out of wages. From 1998 to 2002, they collected paperwork on 47 cases involving 69 victims. The victims included undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens. The cases barely scratched the surface, they said.

"I couldn't believe how blatant and rampant those abuses were," LaGrander said.But the victims couldn't turn to police for help.

"If you called a police officer, they would say, " 'This isn't a criminal matter, it's a civil matter,' and they would refer you to the state Labor Department or to Justice Court," LaGrander said.

The two women met with officials from the Industrial Commission of Arizona, which oversees non-payment of wages, to try to streamline the process of filing complaints. The Labor Department receives about 3,000 wage claims a year, including wage-theft claims.

Complaints often took months to resolve, LaGrander said. The commission agreed to have the Labor Department translate the complaint form into Spanish and provide wage-claim assistance to workers in Spanish.

Still, daunted by the red tape of filing a non-payment of wages claim, most victims simply gave up, LaGrander said.

Then, LaGrander read that Austin had created a new policy treating non-payment of wages as a crime under the state's existing theft-of-services law. She asked the Phoenix Police Department to consider drafting a similar policy here.

At LaGrander's request, the Police Department began looking into wage theft and "by gosh, it was a problem," said Jeff Hynes, commander of the central city precinct.

After conferring with city prosecutors, the department in March 2004 agreed to draft a new policy stating police would investigate non-payment of wages as a crime under the state's existing theft-of-services law. At least two other cities, Kansas City, Mo., and Denver, also have recently made non-payment of wages a crime.

"I think that's the ultimate low, to steal one's hard labor," said Cmdr. Silverio Ontiveros, who shepherded the new policy through the Phoenix Police Department.

In the past, police investigated wage theft sporadically, he said. But under the new policy, police officers on the street are required to fill out a criminal complaint whenever someone reports that they have been a victim of wage theft.

The officer then refers the complaint to a detective. If there is sufficient evidence, the case is then referred to city prosecutors.

About half of the time, however, employers agree to pay after police inform them there is a complaint against them. Usually, no further criminal action is taken, police said. So far, only one employer has been prosecuted under the new policy.

Many cases remain unresolved, however, because the victims can't provide enough information, police said.

As part of the wage-theft policy, police have tried to educate day laborers how to file complaints against unscrupulous employers, telling them to write down employer names, license-plate numbers, physical descriptions and phone numbers.

In some cities, police have begun enforcing some federal immigration lawsby detaining undocumented immigrants they encounter. That has not been the case in Phoenix. Under the Police Department's long-standing policy, only the names of crime suspects who are undocumented are reported to federal immigration officials, not the names of crime victims or witnesses, Ontiveros said.

"Once individuals knew that we weren't going to allow them to victimize day laborers, that cleared up a lot of the problem," said Lt. Mike Parra.

Still a problem

Anecdotal evidence and interviews with immigrant advocates, however, suggest wage theft remains a problem and may be getting worse, despite efforts by police.

In the parking lot behind Tacos Feliz, about 30 day laborers were asked how many of them had been cheated out of pay by an employer. Virtually every one raised their hand.

Take Gregorio Perez Gomez, 51, for example. In the parking lot of Tacos Feliz, the native of Chiapas, Mexico recalled the trouble he had trying to remember the phone number of a construction contractor who stiffed him for $50 after working eight hours installing flooring. Perez wrote the contractor's phone number on a dollar bill, intending to call the police. When he looked for the dollar in his wallet later, it was gone.

He spent it on a soda.

Salvador Reza, who runs the Macehualli Work Center on 25th Street south of Bell Road, said many immigrant day laborers who gather informally on street corners are still unaware they can report wage theft to police.

In contrast, he said day laborers who use the Macehualli center rarely have problems with employers who cheat workers out of pay. That is because they report every case to police, Reza said.

"The people who don't want to pay, who want to exploit the workers, they go out to the street," Reza said.

A recent police crackdown on day laborers in front of the Home Depoton Thomas Road near 36th Street and demonstrations by members of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an anti-illegal immigration group, have made workers more reluctant to call police, he said.

That appears to be the case, said Officer Gregory Gibbs, who is assigned to work with day laborers and businesses in the area.

Between August and October, Gibbs said he received on average three or four wage-theft complaints a week from day laborers. Since then, wage-theft complaints from day laborers in that area have dropped off to about one a week, he said.

"They associate the police of being on the Minuteman side. Because of that, they've been more reluctant to come up and say, 'Hey, I've been a victim,' " Gibbs said.

Police said victims of wage theft should not be afraid of reporting the crime to police. "When we have an allegation of a crime, we have an obligation to investigate it" regardless of the victim's immigration status, Hynes said.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8312.

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