UNM Study: Employers Steal Wages from 1 in 4 Mexican Immigrant Workers

New Mexico employers steal wages from at least one in four Mexican immigrant workers, according to a new study released on Thursday by Somos Un Pueblo Unido and UNM Professor of Political Science and Sociology Andrew Schrank. The study Mexican Immigrants and Wage Theft in New Mexico, conducted by Dr. Schrank and doctoral student Jessica Garrick from UNM’s Department of Sociology, documents the impact of wage theft and other workplace abuses on immigrant workers who live in New Mexico. To download report, click here.

Wage theft is defined by the illegal underpayment or nonpayment of wages. It occurs when employers do not pay overtime, require employees to work off the clock, pay less than the local minimum wage, or deny last paychecks.  In an in-depth survey of 210 Mexican immigrants taken in the fall of 2012, researchers found that wage theft is not limited to undocumented immigrants. While the percentage of undocumented Mexican immigrants who said their wages had been stolen by employers in New Mexico was particularly high at 29%, 21% of workers who were legally authorized to work in the US acknowledged being victims as well.  The report also shows that employers who steal wages are more likely to engage in other workplace abuses.

“Workplace violations tend to cluster. Workers who suffer wage theft are also more likely to suffer verbal and physical abuse, forced overtime, denial of rest periods, and the like,” said Professor Schrank. “This suggests that abuse isn’t randomly distributed across the labor market but is perpetrated systematically by employers who are “bad apples.” Given the prevalence of these abuses, however, it’s safe to conclude that there are a lot of bad apples out there.”

Jessica Garrick, doctoral student at University of Michigan who co-authored the report while a graduate student at UNM, added: “Notably, immigrant workers who experience wage theft are an incredibly diverse group. Other similar surveys across the country focused on groups of immigrants that were more uniform, such as recently-arrived undocumented construction workers in New Orleans who were mostly male. The immigrants in our survey have been in both the state and the US for longer, have slightly higher education levels, speak varying levels of English, and work in many different occupations and industries. All of these groups within our samples experienced wage theft and employer abuse at fairly high rates.”

One of the more concerning findings showed that wage theft victims rarely report the crime or attempt to recover their wages. Only 12% of self-reported wage theft victims reported the problem to an authority, and only four of those went to a government agency. Of those four, only one resulted in an actual wage claim. When asked why they did not pursue redress, victims cited fear of retaliation, lack of knowledge, and concerns about the bureaucracy.

“My husband who worked at Squeaky Clean Car Wash in Santa Fe was required to work off the clock, even after the company was required to change its policy by the Department of Workforce Solutions,” Fernanda Rangel, a resident of Santa Fe for six years, said at the press conference. “And when I recently worked at Albertson’s to clean the store overnight with a friend, they refused to pay us. We didn’t know we could complain until we met members of the worker center who had also been wage theft victims. It’s hard enough to get by in this economy, it’s shameful that employers would steal money from our families and our children.”

“I was a wage theft victim for three years at a landscaping business. I also experienced verbal and physical abuse by my manager.  Like many others, I didn’t assert my rights. More support from government agencies would have made all the difference,” said Hodías López, a member of the United Worker Center.

Gabriela Guzmán, staff attorney at Somos’ worker center, stated on Thursday: “Wage theft not only further impoverishes low-income families, it hurts our local economies and puts businesses that are following the rules at a disadvantage. This study shows that the complaint process that exists for victims of wage theft is simply not working. Our state needs to take this problem more seriously and prioritize enforcement.”

Representative Phillip Archuleta (D-Doña Ana) who recently sponsored a law to expedite wage theft cases in Magistrate and District courts and who worked as state labor law administrator for twenty years added: “This isn’t something that just affects workers. Whole families are victimized. Clearly, there is still a lot to be done at the legislative level and the administrative level to make sure that employers are not empowered to commit this crime again and again.”