Wage Theft

José Martinez is bundle of intelligent energy managed by a body that has seen better days.

“I am a double transplant—kidney and liver,” he stated animatedly. He peered up at me through his one good eye and then stated the obvious, “I am disabled.”

José then glanced back at La Bella Hacienda, an adult day care center in Edinburg, Texas,  and lowered his head. “I like to work,” he told me, “and I started coming to this place with my aunt and volunteered to help, and then one thing led to another and then the owner had me driving clients back and forth, cooking meals, and whatever else needed doing. She told me that she would pay me and after a week she said that she was on a biweekly pay schedule and then she told me that she paid her employees by the month, but I never got anything, so I quit.”

It was noon on Thursday, November 15th, and Fuerza del Valle, an organization of  hourly wage workers and others interested in employee rights, had gathered to participate locally in The National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft. After numerous complaints by employees, and a stubborn refusal by the owners to make good on the workers’ just claims, Fuerza chose La Bella Hacienda as the site of our action.Workers at La Hacienda had been complaining about not being paid since before July. At the time of today’s protest, the owners owed their workers more than $6,000.

Or, to put it in less polite, but clearer terms, the owners of La Bella Hacienda had stolen more than $6,000 from their employees.

The owners offered a series of excuses for their theft, the saddest being  “Well, since  now there is Obama Care, we had to pay for that and that meant we had no money left.” Sad because it was wrong, and sad because she said this as she pandered to the TV cameras (Obamacare and its effects on small businesses has not started, and, once it does kick in, it would only affect this very small business in a good way, offering it tax credits to allow them to actually offer some health insurance to their employees—if they actually paid them).

The protest finished after an hour and after the owners promised to make good on their restitution. Several of the workers took turns at the microphone, thanking those who had come out to support them. San Juanita, one of the workers that Bella Hacienda had victimized, passionately promised her presence, “should any of this ever happen to any of you!”   

The many workers who had taken a lunch hour off for the protest headed back to their jobs, the LUPE membership packed up their flags and set off to see to their many  responsibilities and the Fuerza leadership stood around to review the protest.

Hector, coordinator of Fuerza, was enthusiastic about the participation during the picketing,  and a bit cynical about the results. “The owners have been promising to fix this for weeks. We’ll see. And if not, well, we will be back.”


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