San Antonio Fast Food Workers File Suit For Unpaid Wages

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Five former San Antonio fast food employees who say their rights were violated by area eateries aren’t taking the alleged offenses lying down. With the help of two legal aid nonprofits, the low-wage workers filed a federal case Tuesday against local franchises of major food retailers, including Great American Cookies, Subway and Marble Slab Creamery, claiming the companies disregarded the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by failing to pay the low-wage workers for normal hours and for overtime hours.

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“I’m not able to compensate for the lost time I spend away from my family working hard to provide for them,” Brenda Pacheco, San Antonio resident and one of the workers who filed the suit, tells the Current.

The mother of three says she worked overtime in several instances during the past two years while not seeing a paycheck for those hours. Other plaintiffs similarly say companies failed to record all hours worked, paid them “straight time” for overtime hours and made them perform unpaid, off the clock work.

While Texas has no legal protections for overtime, federal rules under FLSA require employers to pay overtime of 1.5 times their employee’s regular pay rate (minimum wage is set to at least $7.25/hour) for each hour worked more than 40 per week. It also mandates employers maintain records of hours worked and compensate short breaks.

Sarah Donaldson, attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, says the problem is pervasive among low-wage employees. Her group and the Equal Justice Center are representing the workers in court.

“The reality is a lot of these type of pay practices, like doing unpaid work off the clock, are pretty common,” she tells the Current.

How common? In 2013 alone, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid received approximately 1,000 calls from workers seeking assistance from the organization’s employment project services. Claire Rodriguez, an attorney with the Equal Justice Center, says the group fields 10-20 calls a week regarding unfair compensation, ranging from problems with overtime to not getting paid at all.

Both Donaldson and Rodriguez say the issue should certainly cut across political aisles and trouble not only other low-wage workers but also food industry competitors who are following the federal rules.

“The violations are very unfair for workers but it’s also bad for the market and industry as a whole,” says Rodriguez. “You have companies that are playing by the rules under law, but then you have these separate companies who conduct unfair and illegal practices having a competitive advantage over the other companies complying with the law. Our mission is to keep a leveled playing field for everyone.”

The legal aides, which both take on wage-rights violations on behalf of low-income workers, say they’ve seen employees hesitate to complain based on intimidation from retailers or pressure to remain in an unfair work environment due to desperation brought on by the unstable job market. While the former is at least prohibited by FLSA— federal rules ban employers from retaliating against their workers in these cases— the demands of working for an inequitable employer, as Pacheco contends, often cannot be easily escaped.

“It was miserable knowing I had to work at a place that was unfair to me most of the time and where I was unhappy but couldn’t leave,” says Pacheco, who worked for local franchises of the Great American Cookie and Marble Slab stores, while helping support her children. “And it seemed they were treating people like me, middle class minorities, especially harder and not paying us fairly.”

As an indication of how low wages affect families like the Pachecos, an October 2013 study found more than half of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public assistance program—such as Medicaid or food stamps—compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.

The study, sponsored by The University of California—Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, finds that many low wage workers receive wages so low that, “their paychecks do not generate enough income to provide for life’s basic necessities.” It notes that people working in fast-food jobs are more likely to live in or near poverty and even full-time hours are not enough to compensate for low wages.

The ramifications of underpaid or neglected wages by corporations ripple into the economy, hurting taxpayers—the cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry is nearly $7 billion per year.

The suit was filed as a ‘collective action’ (different than a ‘class action’) meaning, if the judge allows the suit classification, 125 potential workers employed with the stores can join the suit.

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