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Bay Area woman's unresolved wage theft claim illustrates wider problem

Bay Area woman's unresolved wage theft claim illustrates widespread problem
Bay Area woman's unresolved wage theft claim illustrates widespread problem 04:34

OAKLAND - As 2023 begins, Oakland resident Maria Arroyo holds onto hope that this will be the year she is finally paid for years of work that she claims she's owed. A single mom with three kids, she worked at an independently owned and operated Jack-in-the-Box in Oakland for 15 years up until 2019. That year, she suspected she may be a victim of wage theft.

"I was working there for a long time and I wasn't even making the same money that the new guys were making at that point," she said in Spanish.

She tells CBS News Bay Area she wasn't getting paid minimum wage, didn't get additional pay she was entitled to for working an overnight shift, wasn't being paid sick leave she was entitled to, and repeatedly had paychecks bounce. After three months of no resolution with her management, she left the job.

"I said no more, I'm not going to work like this," she said in Spanish.

With help from the San Francisco-based organization Legal Aid at Work, Arroyo filed a wage theft claim with the state. She says she's owed around $15,000, plus penalties, according to the claim. But even though it's been 3½ years since she filed that claim, she's yet to see a penny. She says she is still waiting for a hearing and doesn't know exactly why that's the case.

"No, I thought it would last for maybe six months," she said in Spanish.

Arroyo's experience is on the lengthier side, but it's not unheard of.

According to data tracked from 2017-2021, analyzed by CBS News, provided by the Department of Industrial Relations to the non-profit news organization Cal Matters, through a public records request, the median time taken to resolve a wage theft case was 439 days.

"It's absolutely unacceptable," said Assemblymember Ash Kalra. "You're asking the least empowered members of the workforce that are trying to just be made whole. They're trying to get what they've earned. They've challenged their employer, and to have to wait for well over a year for adjudication - if you're that worker, why would you go through that process and deal with the headache of having to deal with that employer and in some cases, former employer because you may have moved on to another job."

Of the 63,442 wage theft cases analyzed by CBS News, around 42% of the cases showed a payment was made to the claimant, adding up to a total of $126,853,456.27. However, only 28% of the cases ended in a full payout, according to the analysis.

The median amount for a claim was $2,070.01, which is equivalent to about 9 weeks of groceries for a family in California. But almost a quarter of the cases analyzed by CBS News were for amounts more than $10,000.

Kalra says the state can't tackle the issues of wage theft all by itself.

"The state doesn't have the resources to get into every single one of the 58 counties and do proper enforcement," he said.

He says local jurisdictions need to be empowered as well.

"We do need to empower local jurisdictions to enact their own worker protection laws and allow them to conduct their own enforcement actions," he said.

But as for any definitive measures, Kalra says that's still to be determined.

"I'm absolutely looking at bringing legislation," Kalra said. "We don't know exactly what that will look like. Part of it could very well be in the budget to make sure there is some kind of fund for workers that are waiting this very long period of time for their cases to be adjudicated."

Arroyo now works for another fast-food establishment. Two of her three kids, who are 21 and 22 years old, are also working. She says a full payout would be life changing, as it would help her family find a new and better place to live.

"Because it is too small for us to stay," she said in Spanish.

She's hopeful this will be the year she gets a resolution.

"Yes, yes," she said in Spanish.

CBS News Bay Area reached out to Arroyo's former employer for a comment but did not hear back.

A spokesperson for the Labor Commissioner's Office told CBS News Bay Area, some of the biggest challenges the Department of Labor Relations faces in dealing with wage theft claims include claim complexity, an influx of new claims, as well as challenges with recruitment and hiring. The pandemic exacerbated the existing challenges, says the spokesperson.

In terms of steps the state agency is doing to help reduce the time it takes to adjudicate wage theft claims, the spokesperson provided the following statement:

"The Labor Commissioner's Office is working to strengthen and expedite the wage claim adjudication process, using new enforcement tools to maximize recovery. Filling vacancies as quickly as possible is a top priority for the Labor Commissioner and her team, and they are making steady progress. In 2022, the Labor Commissioner hired approximately 140 team members statewide for all programs, with 53 positions filled in the Wage Claims Adjudication Program, thus illustrating the focus on staffing. Additionally, LCO is leveraging office resources through remote claim assistance regardless of the office where the claim was filed. While the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges, the Labor Commissioner's Office is committed to doing everything possible to reduce the time it takes for workers to have their earned wages restored, and we've already seen improvements."

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