It is a matter of fairness, and of justice, to stand up for workers when they’re exploited by unscrupulous employers. When we enforce labor laws, the consequences often go well beyond the lives of the individual workers affected. The rest of us are protected, too.
Take for instance the guests of many of the top hotels in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. They had no way of knowing, but a ride in a Stanford Cab taxi back to the airport or to a venture capital conference was far more dangerous that it should have been.
“I was working all the time,” says Tamba Kalfala, a taxi driver, describing the 12 to 16 hour shifts he was forced to work. “Sometimes I found myself sleeping while driving.” Also, Stanford Cab sometimes refused to make necessary repairs on the vehicles if they were costly, endangering both the drivers and their passengers. Kalfala knew there had to be something wrong with this employer. He soon would find out.
Labor abuse comes in many ways. Some employers exercise coercion to keep their employees submissive and subdued. They intimidate, retaliate or threaten workers. Lying to workers about the basic nature of their employment is one of the tactics used by employers to make tainted profits.
Stanford Cab did all of the above. The employer told drivers they were not employees but independent contractors. Many of them worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, often making no more than $20 or $30 a day. One driver was told he had to report to the dispatcher every time he wanted to go to the bathroom. Another was required to wait for 10 hours at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Jose without getting paid a single dollar. The drivers were also forced to give half of their tips to the employer. They even had to pay for their own gas. Overtime pay? Not a chance.
“It was just like modern day slavery,” said Miguel Chavez, a taxi driver. The drivers stayed on the job not because they thought what was happening was legal or right, he said, but because for many, their choices are extremely limited. “I’m 65 and nobody is going to hire a 65-year-old, so I have to keep whatever I can get.”
Misclassifying employees as independent contractors is not just a labor violation in the theoretical sense: it causes great harm to the most vulnerable workers. It takes away critical benefits and protections to which they are entitled. Misclassification deprives federal and local governments of taxes to serve local communities. It also creates an unlevel playing field stacked against the majority of employers who play by the rules.
Investigators from the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division also found that Stanford Cab went into full retaliation mode after learning that the drivers were talking to investigators. As it turns out, the employer had a long history of retaliating against any driver raising his or her voice for not getting even the minimum wage. Those who talked were punished. Antony Pelayo is one of them, and he remains unemployed. “I’ve got a couple of kids and one more on the way. I’ve got to do something.”
The U.S. Department of Labor refused to let such violations go unanswered, and lawyers for the department filed a lawsuit. In the end, the court validated the workers’ testimony and found that the drivers were employees, not independent contractors, and that they were entitled to all the worker protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act. We also proved that the drivers had been subject to retaliation and the court permanently enjoined Stanford Cab from retaliating or discriminating against employees exercising their rights.
We are working hard to combat the damaging misclassification of workers. By doing so, we are speaking up for those least likely to speak up for themselves, and advancing our goal of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Priscilla Garcia-Ocampo is director of public relations for the department’s Wage and Hour Division in the West.