When Amitay Samayoa quit a cleaning job in September, he thought he was going to work for a landscaping company that paid more money. The 17-year-old, who’d dropped out of school to work, needed the extra cash for his parents in Mexico.
But after working for a month without pay, Mr. Samayoa said he is owed close to $1,200.
Although they are in the country illegally, Mr. Samayoa and four of his co-workers who also worked without pay — some for a week, others for a couple of months — decided to contact a lawyer. They claim the owners of the landscaping company owe them about $7,000 in back wages.
Mr. Samayoa’s case is not that uncommon, local organizations and law enforcement officials say. Some employers feel they can get away with not paying illegal immigrants because, after all, what can such workers do? Fear of deportation keeps them away from the police or the courts, a sticking point some employers exploit.
Chattanooga Police Department Officer Harold Diaz, who called Mr. Samayoa’s former employer about the wages owed, said he has received two complaints in the past couple of months about 12 Hispanic workers not getting paid at two separate companies. He’s sure there are many more cases he doesn’t hear about, he said.
Joe Wolverton, a local attorney representing Mr. Samayoa and his four co-workers, said he gets about five calls a week from immigrants who didn’t get paid, and the problem is getting worse. Cases usually settle in a couple of weeks with the employees getting what’s owed, he said, but occasionally they can end up in court.
“It usually takes about a week, two weeks (to settle), once everyone realizes the workers are serious,” he said. “Because a lot of (employers) think they’ll just go away because they don’t want to mess with the legal system because they are illegal, but people are getting more sophisticated here and realizing they can take advantage of legal remedies just as anyone else.”
If an employer permits a person to work, that person must be paid, regardless of whether they’re an illegal immigrant, according to Martha Deacon, spokeswoman with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“We always try to recover wages for workers regardless of their status,” she said in an e-mail. “We do not ask workers if they are in the country illegally.
“We need a signed complaint from each of the current or former employees; we try to get as much information as we can about the employer,” she said. “If the circumstances are such that we are unable to help, the complainant is referred to court.”
Illegal immigrants who take their cases to state court don’t put themselves at risk of being deported because immigration laws are federal laws, but the fear still persists.
Mike Feely, who is Chattanooga’s official liaison with the Hispanic community, said nonpayment of immigrants is an issue he and other advocates have been trying to address for several years.
“We started to tell folks they have the same rights as anybody else. If you are supposed to get paid, you are supposed to get paid,” he said. “But for the most part, there are no contracts. It is just one word against one word.”
For Mr. Samayoa and the other four workers, trying to get their money has cost them about $1,000 in legal fees and brought on the added challenge of finding new jobs.
Porfirio Hernandez, a Dalton, Ga., resident who’s also here illegally, said he worked for a construction company in Chattanooga for three days until he found out from other workers that they hadn’t been paid, some for a month. He said he tried to ask for $420 for 42 hours of work, but his boss gave him the runaround.
“After I realized I wasn’t getting paid and that I was just wasting more time and money, I decided to leave it alone and look for another job here in Dalton,” he said.
A lot of people decide not to pursue unpaid wages because they can’t afford being unemployed, especially if they have families to support, Mr. Hernandez said.
But he will make sure it doesn’t happen to him again.
“A lot of us just take the job without asking any questions, afraid that they won’t give us the job if we do,” he said. “Next time I’m going to make sure that I have in writing who’s going to be in charge of paying me and keeping track of my hours.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...