Wage theft in California: does the state follow its own rules?

From restaurants to retail, construction to car washes, workers are estimated to be unfairly deprived of $50 billion each year. Much of that money is being taken from California workers. There have been major problems since 2017 and it’s still going on.

During all of this, California workers have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Senior reporter Ross Palombo has the shocking data and details.

We’re talking money that’s already been earned and owed but never ends up in your paycheck because employers sometimes don’t pay all of your hours, or all of your overtime or break time, or not at all.

And even when the state steps in, we’ve found that only a fraction of workers ever see a dime.

A state law helps with this. But data shows California isn’t always following suit, losing tens of thousands of employees.

Antonio Dominguez has been working for years to make his future shine, arriving in this country with nothing but ambition and brawn, polishing countless cars and hoping to see success shining in his reflection.

And the hardest part, he says, was trying to get paid. Dominguez first worked at La Playa Car Wash in Culver City, where he washed and dried cars for six years. Until, he says, he finally realized he was the one being taken to the cleaners.

“They wanted us to come earlier, they didn’t give us our lunch, our 10 minutes,” Dominguez said through an interpreter.

“You start thinking like, ‘Oh wait, I’m not getting paid for all the hours I’ve worked,'” said Flor Rodriguez, executive director of the CLEAN Carwash Worker Center.

Flor Rodriguez helped organize 63 employees at the same car wash and filed a lawsuit with the California Labor Commission.

And you think this car wash owes employees millions of dollars?

“Oh yeah, sure,” Rodriguez said.

The state agreed and charged the car wash with wage theft for $2.36 million, said workers weren’t paid for wait time, said there was no overtime pay, and said managers regularly changed workers’ time cards to reflect total hours worked to reduce.

And if it happens in car washes, do you think it happens in other places too?

“It’s definitely happening in a lot of other places,” said Flor Rodriguez. “Salary theft, it’s definitely rampant.”

In fact, our CBS News analysis of data obtained by CalMatters from the California Department of Industrial Relations found tens of thousands of cases across California: 63,442 lawsuits for wage theft since 2017, totaling more than half a billion dollars at $558,617,654.

The median amount of these claims is $2,070. And similarly across the state, that works out to about a week and a half of salary, or nine weeks of groceries, or a month’s rent, or 80 percent of an average mortgage payment.

“Definitely struggling with the rent, definitely struggling with the food,” Flor Rodriguez said.

You’ve seen workers lose their homes, you’ve seen workers starve, and you’ve seen young children affected?

“Yes,” said Rodriguez. “That’s definitely a lot.”

Even when the state orders a debt paid, California data shows more than half — 58 percent — never see a dime. And only about a third, 28 percent, ever get paid in full. That means that out of half a billion dollars ($558,617,654) in wages across California, our research found the state recovered only $126,853,456. That’s less than a quarter of the money — just 23 percent.

“It’s shameful,” said California Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D).

California Senator Maria Elena Durazo has worked to change those numbers and change how state regulators deal with wage theft.

According to the law, the working commission has 135 days to hear and decide a case. However, our research found that the median time it takes for the state to solve a case is more than three times longer: 439 days.

Does it bother you that the state seems to be breaking its own law?

“Of course it bothers me,” Durazo said.

Is the state doing its job?

“We don’t do our job. We don’t do it, the state doesn’t do its job. And we need to change things,” Durazo said.

She is now working on legislation to speed up the process and give the state more enforcement powers to get the money back faster.

Santa Clara County went it alone and began confiscating restaurant and grocery licenses when owners didn’t pay. It has settled almost all of its cases.

“That’s why our gathering ability is so important,” Durazo said. “This is critical, and we need stronger tools so employers don’t think it’s as easy not to pay as these car wash workers are.”

Car washer Antonio Dominguez’s complaint helped the state cite the car wash in 2019, and now, almost four years later, he still hasn’t seen a dime. The car wash appealed.

We tried to speak to owner Hooman Nissani but only found a new manager.

“I didn’t see that in my supervision and I’m a manager, so,” said Hugo Flores.

And at a Beverly Hills mansion where records show Nissanis LLC was purchased in 2018, which has an “N” on the gate and cars with license plates registered to its dealership in the driveway, the woman at the door said, she had never heard of him.

After repeatedly rescheduling appointments with us, Nissani’s lawyer said they would not comment on the workers’ specific allegations, but said overall that they were untrue.

“It was very difficult,” said Antonio Dominguez. “The problem is that we didn’t know where to go.”

It’s hard to keep working and awaiting justice, both from your former employer and from government regulators who are supposed to keep business owners clean.

is that fair

“I want people in general, the workers, to know that we have rights in this country, in this state,” Dominguez said.

Hooman Nissani’s lawyer would not give us any of their appeal documents, but confirmed earlier reports in which he said their appeal claimed the state investigation was flawed, was based on anecdotal evidence, contained “untrue statements” from the workers and that the fines it was “grossly inflated.”

The car wash also filed its own audit in support of its case, which concluded that the car wash may have overpaid its workers.

In the last 24 hours, Nissani’s attorney said there is now a signed settlement agreement with the state. But she didn’t send us a copy of that settlement and didn’t give us any details. The state did not verify that anything was signed.

Nissani’s lawyer says: “It’s a fair settlement.” And, she says, the car wash has been compliant for years now.


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