It’s not unusual for Clyde Delgado to arrive to work with a line already outside. Understaffed and overworked, the San Jose fast food restaurant where he and his siblings work has revoked earned breaks and forced staff to finish cleaning after hours to catch up—sometimes off the clock, he says.
Picking up the slack from workers who quit over safety concerns or were out sick with Covid-19, Delgado not only learned who had the virus through the grapevine, but also who management failed to inform of available sick leave. The 23-year-old, who asked that his employer not be named so he would not face retribution, channeled his frustration over his experience into action, speaking out for the victims of wage theft this week.
“There are times that they get too exhausted to the point that they sacrifice their health, get sick, and bad things happen,” Delgado told San Jose Inside. “I really want to be their voice.”
The pandemic has exacerbated wage theft, but has also created new avenues for businesses to short workers. According to a report released April 20 by the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition, county officials received 1,658 complaints alleging businesses violated Covid-19 safety protocols during the pandemic between August 30 and October 26.
Delgado, who arrived in the United States from the Philippines with his family in August 2019, said he is one of the few willing to come forward, fortunate to not rely on the job because he is not the sole bread winner for his family.
“Sadly, we continue to work without compensation despite the working conditions,” he said. “For some of us immigrants that started our journey here in the United States, letting go of our jobs and maneuvering around a pandemic is walking on thin ice.”
Santa Clara County was at one time home to the highest number of wage theft claims in California, the data shows. Indeed, the region has seen some high-profile cases, like the egregious nonpayment and worker conditions for some workers at the 2017 construction site for the residential project once known as Silvery Towers. In Nov. 2020, a Gilroy couple was charged with human trafficking and wage theft after allegedly forcing a man from India to work 15 hour shifts, seven days a week for no pay, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. This month, a San Jose flooring company was charged with failing to pay almost $1 million to employees.
Despite decades of judgements and legislation against wage theft, these accounts have continued to run rampant in Santa Clara County, the data show.
A Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition analysis found 25,856 reported wage theft cases across industries in Santa Clara County, impacting 32,826 employees to the tune of $128.8 million in total wage theft. On average, employees lost nearly $4,000 from salaries, most of which remains unpaid.
San Jose, the largest city in the region, represented a majority of the cases, but the issue spans across the county, including 1,800 care home workers in Sunnyvale and the 1,300 fast food workers in Palo Alto. Personal stories are especially vital when data gets lost along the way.
Forest Peterson, Santa Clara County’s first investigator within the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE), said people often do not file claims because they’re scared of losing their jobs and reputation, but also give up trying to see their case through in court.
“Following up on your own rights isn't necessarily your first priority when you're simply trying to live and eat,” Peterson said, during a briefing on the data April 20. “I saw many cases drop off the record … one way or another, the cases are pushed aside before they ever become a full violation.”
Yet, the Wage Theft Coalition is hopeful about efforts at the city, county and state level. The group's recommendations from 2015 to mandate wage theft judgements disclosures, revoke business licenses and permits and establish a legal advice line staffed by bilingual attorneys, were approved or signed into local law in Santa Clara County, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Milpitas and Morgan Hill.
Most recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 1947, which extended the statute of limitations for claims from six months to one year, and AB 3075, which closed a loophole that allowed companies to dodge unpaid wages after business transfers.
Now that Sen. Dave Cortese, who opened Santa Clara County’s OLSE, is pushing even more legislation through the capital as Chair of the Senate Labor Committee, including the FAST Recovery Act, which would give workers more power in large corporations, most notably McDonald’s.
But legislation is a slow drag, so the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition started the “Silicon Valley Worker Stories Project” in April 2020 to raise awareness in the meantime, sharing stories from some of the most vulnerable workers to wage theft: low-earning folks who clean homes, care for children and the elderly, toil in agricultural fields, construct local infrastructure and prepare food.
“As advocates, I feel like one of the most powerful tools we can utilize is the stories of people themselves,” said Katherine Nasol, a co-author of the newly released report and policy director of the Bulosan Center for Filipinx Studies. “That’s what people remember when we push for a different policies and bills—the people who are behind it.”