On a Tuesday afternoon last June, Humberto was yanking old wires from the walls of a middle school in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, when his cell phone rang.
Humberto’s wife, who had just returned from her weekly trip to the grocery store, was on the line. “Our account is negative,” she said.
The 45-year-old electrician, who spoke on the condition that he be identified by his middle name because he is undocumented, had been working 10 hours a day, six days a week as part of a $200 million renovation project. This was how he learned that his $1,250 paycheck had bounced.
And so began Humberto’s thus far unsuccessful quest to get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work — a struggle familiar to many other victims of wage theft who battle for months or years for the money they’re due.
Companies that rely on low-wage workers are most likely to get caught cheating their employees, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of minimum wage and overtime violations from the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2019 alone, the agency cited about 8,500 employers for taking about $287 million from workers.
The contractor who hired Humberto, Mata Electric, made good on the check about a week after it bounced, he said, but it was just the first of several bounced paychecks that would push his family of four deep into debt. By the time he quit the job in August, Humberto said, the contractor owed him more than $3,500 for five weeks of work.
Humberto was forced to borrow $500 from his mother-in-law in Honduras to pay the rent. His mother, who works at Krispy Kreme, lent him money, too.
He soon began to wonder if his co-workers were also getting cheated.
“This is not something workers like to talk about. It’s embarrassing,” he said. “You’re basically admitting that you let someone take advantage of you.”
Finally, he asked them. Some co-workers said they hadn’t been paid in weeks; others in more than a month.
Humberto and a group of his co-workers decided to confront their supervisor, Tina Sharpe, after lunch one day in August. One of the younger workers translated.
“We’re really, really mad. You owe us many paychecks,” Humberto told her.
Sharpe answered calmly, he said, and told them that the company was having financial problems. He said she promised that the money was on its way and begged them to keep working. Humberto did, for a few more weeks. When two more paychecks bounced, he said he started looking for another job.
He never got his last paycheck, he said.
Through a lawyer, Sharpe declined to comment, except to deny any wrongdoing and dispute Public Integrity’s use of the term “wage theft.”
Isaac Guazo, an economic justice organizer at the nonprofit Adelante Alabama Worker Center, urged Humberto and his co-workers to sue Mata Electric.
The idea scared Humberto. He’d heard stories of immigration officials waiting at courthouses to detain undocumented immigrants. Some of his co-workers, who are also undocumented, backed out. About a dozen, including Humberto, decided to move forward.
Their lawyer filed the paperwork in federal court in early December. There was just one problem: They couldn’t find the co-owner of the company, Erick Mata, to serve him the documents. They had 120 days to do it. After that, the court summons would expire and a judge could throw out the case.
On Feb. 19, a process server tracked down Sharpe at one of Mata’s homes in Birmingham and served her with a summons and a separate one for Mata. She and Mata, both named in the lawsuit as defendants and company co-owners, did not file a response to the workers’ allegations.
No one answered phone calls from Public Integrity to the number listed at Mata’s address. Public Integrity also sent certified letters to four addresses seeking comment, but he didn’t respond.
Public records show that Mata began having financial problems as early as 2017, when the IRS filed a tax lien against him for $28,596 in unpaid taxes. The state of Alabama has filed three tax liens against Mata since 2018. In September and October, he defaulted on his mortgage, records show. It’s unclear where he’s living now.
In March, Sharpe filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which could make it trickier for Humberto and his co-workers to get their money. If Humberto succeeds, he already knows what he’ll spend it on.
“I really, really need to pay back my mother-in-law,” he said. “And my mom.”
Public Integrity data reporter Joe Yerardi contributed to this article.