Last year Jesus Serrato Zuniga and Maria Mendez Zuniga, owners of La Iguana restaurant near Corpus Christi, Texas, fired a cook of 13 years, believing the employee had complained to federal authorities and sparked an investigation that uncovered the Zunigas had been shorting their workers to the tune of $25,000.
It’s illegal to retaliate against workers who speak up about not being paid what they are owed. Federal law protects those who file wage complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor and cooperate with its investigations. Unfortunately, many workers face retaliation whether they’ve formally spoken to authorities, or privately complained directly to their employer. The Zunigas' retaliation wasn’t just reactionary and illegal, but also wrongly directed at someone who hadn’t even filed a complaint.
Prepared to go to court if necessary, we reached a settlement with the Zunigas in which they agreed to pay the fired worker lost wages and liquidated damages, and to post a notification about workers’ rights in a prominent location in the restaurant. But that’s not all: the Zuniga’s actions also cost them a long-time and loyal employee as their cook decided to take a job elsewhere rather than return to La Iguana when the situation was resolved. Federal wage and hour laws are based on a very simple principle and promise: if you work hard and play by the rules, you should get the pay you’ve earned.
When rogue employers flout the law, it means people struggle to pay the rent and put dinner on the table. It threatens livelihoods and hurts families. We will use every enforcement tool available − including going to the courts − to stop illegal, even threatening behavior, in order to protect workers. And we will do so without regard to the immigration status of workers. To do otherwise would create an incentive for unscrupulous employers to hire undocumented workers and pay them subminimum wages, or no wages at all. It would create a race to the bottom and undermine U.S. workers and those employers who are playing by the rules, forcing them both to compete on an unlevel playing field.
As was the case at La Iguana, employers sometimes base their illegal actions against workers on assumptions that aren’t even valid. We often conduct investigations where no one has complained. We direct much of our efforts to sectors like the restaurant industry where evidence shows violation rates are high, and where many vulnerable, low-wage workers are employed − who often are reluctant to assert their rights and raise their voices. Many of them face language barriers, fear losing their job or have concerns about their immigration status, making them less likely to step forward when their rights are denied.
In fiscal year 2015, our enforcement cases resulted in more than $74 million in back wages for 102,000 workers in low-wage industries. These industries include restaurant, agriculture, hotel/motel, garment, and temporary help. Since 2009, we have helped more than 1.7 million workers, and found more than $1.6 billion in back wages due. Make no mistake about it: Workers in this country are protected against intimidation or retaliation from their employers when they stand up for their rights to a paycheck that fairly and legally reflects their hard work.
Workers or employers who wish to contact us can do so by calling 1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243), or contacting their nearest Wage and Hour Division office.
Betty Campbell is the regional administrator of the Wage and Hour Division in the Southwest, and Connie Ackermann is the acting regional solicitor of labor for the department in Dallas.