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tv   Fault Lines  Al Jazeera  September 2, 2014 5:00am-5:31am EDT

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shame on you! shame on you! shame on you! >> this year, striking restaurant workers brought their low wages to the nation's attention. but what many americans don't know is that low wage workers are often being cheated out of what little they do make. >> i said are you kidding me? i said you're telling me that these people allowed to treat people like this and you can't do anything? >> they accuse me. they accuse me, the federal government, that i stole one
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million dollars from these low-wage workers. >> they call it wage theft, and the restaurant industry is one of the worst offenders. every year, it amounts to billions of dollars taken from paychecks of the very lowest earners. >> i don't want anything extra. i'm willing to give more than enough. i'm willing to give a hundred and twenty five percent just to be able to get a level playing field. >> this week on fault lines, we look at what it means to have a job when getting paid what you're owed is not guaranteed. >> i mean, at what point does it stop? who's speaking for us? who's going to speak for us? >> the us is now a low-wage economy.
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tens of millions of people in america are currently working low-paid jobs many of them are based here, in florida. in this state, one out of every ten jobs is in a restaurant. we've come here to investigate what recourse workers have when they don't get the wages they earned. in the center of miami beach, david's cafe is a popular cuban restaurant. for many years its owners operated a twin restaurant, called david's cafe two, just a mile away. in 2012, david's cafe two closed down. but there was a problem. >> where's the money, david?! woo! where's the money david?! >> more than twenty of its employees said they were owed a combined seventy-four thousand
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dollars in unpaid wages. >> evelio de silva worked at david's cafe two. he says that paychecks from the owner, adrian gonzalez, started bouncing about a year before the restaurant closed. >> tony fernandez worked at david's cafe for fourteen years. >> the workers went to the federal department of labor. months later they each received a letter acknowledging that they were owed money, but saying that the department would take no further action, and providing a phone number to find a private attorney. >> it's supposed to be labor department, departamento for employees.
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but they say, sorry, i can do nothing. >> where's the money, david?! no more bounced checks! >> they couldn't turn to the state department of labor, florida doesn't have one. >> but as of 2010, dade county has a monthly wage theft hearing to settle pay disputes between workers and employers. >> the hearing is taking place on the sixth floor of this building. it only happens once a month, and for many low-paid workers in this part of florida, it's the only chance they'll get of having their complaints of wage theft actually heard. >> alright, we're here in the matter of lydia ayala, case number 2013-1176. >> like the people here today, the workers from david's cafe came to
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present their case. >> i have the forms of receipt of payment. >> the owner of david's cafe didn't show up. in absentia, the hearing officer ordered him to pay the workers three times what he owed each employee. >> you are in fact entitled to the seventy-one hours that you're alleging. i am satisfied that you have demonstrated your burden of proof. >> adrian gonzalez still refused to pay. >> do something for a living! what do you do all day? >> gonzalez is not alone. over the last three years, out of nearly nine-thousand sit-down restaurants inspected by the federal department of labor, an astonishing eighty four percent were found to have
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violated wage laws. >> if you obey the law as a business person, you're at a disadvantage because there's so many people who don't obey the law. we've had workers contact us for violations of minimum wage laws, overtime laws... >> juan carlos is a waiter who organizes an informal network of restaurant workers to fight for unpaid wages. >> ...and the employers have the upper hand out here. they can steal from you as a worker and face very little if any consequences. >> juan helped the former david's cafe workers organize their protests. >> so at the same time that we're involved in this pitched battle against david's cafe, we hear in the news that a few workers at cafe versailles at
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the miami international airport were arrested for stealing from the employer. >> earlier today, seven women were arrested and tonight they're being questioned by police. team six reporter willard shepard has been staking out the airport all night. >> these women are still being questioned here. they have been questioned throughout the evening about exactly how they came up with this plan, and exactly how they executed it. >> these workers were handcuffed, their mug shots were splashed all over the media. they were portrayed as menaces to society. >> later tonight they'll be transported downtown to the county jail. >> the authorities are very quick to act when it's one of us, a poor person, a working person, who's committed a crime that affects the interests of the employers. but when the reverse is true, when the employer steals tens of thousands of dollars from workers, there's no one there to enforce the law. >> and so you will earn less than the minimum wage, you will get robbed of your tips, you will get robbed of your overtime pay, you won't receive pay for
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all of the hours worked, for example. people have no idea what's it is like to work as a low-wage worker. >> al jazeera america presents: >> smile and look at the camera. >> edge of eighteen >> i thought grades would get me into college. >> the tough realities >> the bullying became too much to take for me. >> my parents basically hated each other. >> facing our kids >> that's not how life works, apparently. >> look what i have for you... you can't have it. >> i'm not giving up - my father can't take those dreams away from me. >> dreaming big >> i've got to get into at least one of these top schools... there's no way i can't. >> i would like to run for president of the united states. >> confronting fears >> i have a confession to make. >> i don't wanna have to take out loans. >> i took the pregnancy test. >> making their future, real >> that dream was crushed, you're done... you weren't good enough. >> fifteen cameras, one incredible journey >> let me experience life, let me fly, let me be a bird. >> i know what i want, i know
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>> mr. gonzalez? excuse me, mr. gonzalez? could you explain why you haven't paid your workers? >> after fault lines began investigating david's cafe for stealing its employees' wages, the owner offered to pay his former workers seventy-five percent of what they're owed. with few other options, the workers agreed. but as of this show's air date, no checks have arrived. restaurant workers have little power. nationwide, less than five percent are represented by a union. in florida, efforts to enact wage protections face opposition from a strong business lobby. among that lobby's successes this year: a new law that prevents localities from requiring companies to grant paid sick days. state senator david simmons sponsored that bill.
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>> we do not want to become like a state that over-regulates the private enterprise so that it overburdens employers. because you know who ends up ultimately paying for it? employees. that's exactly what happens. you overburden employers with regulations and obligations and they're not free to treat their employees the way we know they want to treat them, and that is with respect and with as high a pay as they can possibly get by with paying and be competitive. in the majority of cases, employees are, they have a wonderful relationship with their employer and... >> low paid workers in florida? >> also low paid workers in florida, if you want to call them low-paid. we have a very, very strong legal system here... >> but we've met employees through that system and the court has found in their favor. they still haven't got their money back. >> well, you can't make, one
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thing is true here in the united states. if the defendant doesn't have any money, you can have a judgment against that person but you can't send them to jail because they can't pay their debts, or don't pay their debts. that's just a fact of life. >> the food service industry recorded sales last year of over six hundred billion dollars. it is the largest employer of minimum wage jobs in the country, jobs that can leave full-time workers below the federal poverty threshold. in nearby fort lauderdale, gloria lewis prepares dinner every sunday for some of the city's homeless population. >> i'm a waitress but i've been cooking from the time i was eight years old. on the islands, you got to cook,
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i'm sorry. if you're going to get a husband, you better cook. >> she and her husband started the effort on their own, buying the groceries and distributing the meals. recently a church group started helping them. >> and so what we do, we go here, then we come here, then we go to another spot right over there. lower income jobs, seven, eight dollars an hour. if you do the calculations and the cost of living, there's no money there. >> give me a bottle of water please. >> gloria says that for most of the people she feeds, the jobs available are restaurant work, if they can get them. gloria knows what it's like. she's been working in florida restaurants for over 20 years, but she still makes minimum wage. she also estimates she's lost about nineteen thousand dollars in unpaid wages over several jobs. >> the first place that i worked, i knew the wages were stolen. the problem is you need the job.
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so it's only after i'm not on the job anymore that i go after these employers. while i'm on the job, i'm not going to do anything. gloria is a rarity. she has successfully sued three of her former employers for wage theft. all three restaurants settled outside of court. >> when he fired me, then i went for my money. >> why didn't you say anything earlier? >> i need the job. how am i going to say, if everybody else there is accepting the situation, who am i to think that i am going to go in there and change something and still have a job? when everybody has been here forever and they accept it? you really think little old me, especially a little black girl, oh please. they'll throw me out in a heartbeat. >> each of the three restaurants she sued had a different way of chipping into her wages. >> the third time, they were taking out thirty hours, thirty minutes a day for almost two years, taking out breaks that i never took.
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and before the manager leaves, he knew that the job wasn't done, but he would ask you, did you clock out? so your job was not complete but you needed to clock out. so i would clock out and stay there to finish the job. >> other restaurants also cheated her in smaller ways, but she didn't go through the time and expense to sue. >> and it's not like it's only me. they're not singling out me. that's just across the board what is being done. because i've worked in enough restaurants and it pretty much happened in all of them. if the employer gets, once every three years gets sued, calculate how much money is in his pocket. it's worth the risk. >> one of the premises that has made america as great as it is, is a court system in which anyone who has been wronged gets a fair day in court. >> it doesn't go to court.
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there's a settlement agreement with a gag order. meaning that i am not allowed to tell anyone else on the job or anywhere that i got my money. so what do i do in my resume in the last ten years, tell the people what did i do for ten years. so there you go, this is why ain't nobody doing anything about it. >> you can compare how employees are in florida, with employees in china or malaysia, or southeast asia, and you come to the conclusion that this is in fact, the greatest place to live and to work. >> when you earn seven, you know, eight dollars an hour, that's less than twenty thousand dollars a year. >> saru jayaraman is the co-founder of the restaurant opportunities center, a non-profit group that works to improve conditions for restaurant workers.
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>> the restaurant industry as a whole reported just a few months ago, record high profits coming out of this incredible economic crisis. they're doing quite well. >> in chicago, saru's group organized a demonstration outside of the capital grille to protest low wages at that restaurant. the capital grille is owned by darden restaurants, the largest full-service restaurant company in the world. darden also owns other well-known chains, like olive garden, red lobster, and longhorn steakhouse. at the protest, we met alfredo galdamez, who washed dishes at the capital grille for a little over a year. he said he soon noticed that the managers were clocking him out before he was done working.
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>> even after alfredo got paid, his earnings were not entirely his own. he showed me darden paid him: on a debit card. >> was everybody using these cards? everybody had this? >> yes, everybody. the problem is, every time you use it, you are paying. >> cards like these allow darden to lower payroll costs. but alfredo says the card charged him a fee when he checked his balance, and a fee
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when he withdrew funds. darden - along with twenty other companies including mcdonald's and wendy's - is now under investigation by new york's attorney general for excessive and undisclosed payroll card fees. >> fault lines labor day marathon the true cost of cheap labor >> nothing can be worse than this people burnt to ash... >> horrendous conditions... traffic labor on us bases... management stealing wages... exploited children put to work... >> how many of you get up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning to go out to the fields? don't miss our award winning series fault lines labor day marathon
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>> darden restaurants is the nation's largest employer of tipped workers. by federal law, employers of tipped workers benefit from a loophole in wage regulations. they can pay tipped workers a base wage that today is just thirty percent of the minimum wage. the rest is supposed to be made up by tips. >> so this is the thing that americans don't know when they eat out. the minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour.
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seventy percent of tipped workers in america work at very casual family style restaurants where they're earning very little money in tips and squeaking by. and so the median wage, even with tips is under $9 an hour. >> we want to hear darden's perspective on these wages. >> but they've refused all of our requests for an interview, so we're on our way to the company headquarters, located just outside the city of orlando, and it's there that all the company's decisions are made. >> i think the worst form of stolen wages is the fact that they are spending millions of dollars - not on paying their workers a decent wage or providing benefits, but instead on lobbying, both at the state level and in congress, to keep wages at a poverty level. >> darden is a leading voice in the national restaurant association, the lobbying organization that negotiated the
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low federal minimum wage for tipped workers. >> we've come to see if we can speak to clarence otis, the ceo? >> back in 1996, herman cain, who later tried to run for president, was the head of the national restaurant association. struck this behind closed doors deal, with congress, saying that they the nra would not oppose a modest increase to the overall minimum wage as long as this wage stayed frozen forever for tipped workers. at 2 dollars and 13 cents an hour. >> could you bring somebody down, please, because we need to speak to somebody about this. we've been trying for several weeks. >> so for the last twenty-two years as the regular minimum wage has continued to rise, the minimum wage for tipped workers has stayed frozen. basically this industry is saying we don't have to pay these workers at all. they should work for us, but we don't have to pay them at all. you should pay them as customers. >> with tens of thousands of tipped workers, that adds up to a great deal for darden's magagement.
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>> we can actually see that darden's being listed as one of the one hundred best companies to work for, despite the fact that they've paid out nearly fourteen million dollars in lawsuits related to wage theft of their lowest paid employees. >> both darden and the national restaurant association declined to be interviewed for this story. but they have publicly lobbied against minimum wage increases, saying that any changes would slow job growth and hurt america's already fragile economy. president obama and congressional democrats have proposed small increases in the minimum wage for both tipped and non-tipped workers. but the proposals haven't moved far in congress. and just a few minutes from the capitol building, some workers allege that the federal government isn't complying with its own wage laws. this is the ronald reagan
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building, home of dozens of federal agencies, including the department of customs and border protection. at lunch, the food hall fills up with tourists and government workers. >> the restaurants in this food hall are actually federally contracted businesses, but the workers here claim they're owed nearly a million dollars in unpaid wages. >> many workers allege they didn't get overtime pay, some say they got even less than dc's hourly minimum wage of $8.25. >> antonio venagus started working in the food court in 2010.
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>> is this how you treat american workers? >> no! >> in may of this year, antonio spoke at one of several one-day strikes in dc to protest wage theft and low wages. the next day, he was arrested, and detained by immigration officials for four days. it could be a coincidence that after three years of serving lunch to border agents his legal status was discovered right after he spoke out. but even if antonio had been paid the federal minimum wage, he would have made only about fifteen thousand dollars a year.
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more than three million people work full time on this wage but still live in poverty. and since the recession, nearly sixty percent of jobs added have been in low wage work. >> these are private relationships that do not need to be over-regulated by government. >> the workers don't have power. >> the restaurant industry is the fastest growing sector of the us economy. it is the industry that's out there. these are the jobs that are out there. this increasingly is american work. this is the job. >> these young people deserve justice >> anatomy of a protest... >> ...the police look like they're getting ready to come down the street >> with militarized police departments >> forces their message... >> they're actually firing canisters of gas... >> a fractured community demands answers >> what do we want? >> justice! >> when do we want it? >> now! >> faul lines, al jazeera america's hard hitting...
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>> there blocking the door... >> ground breaking... >> truth seeking... >> we have to get out of here... award winning investigative documentary series... special episode ferguson: city under siege only on al jazeera america children once sacrificed their childhoods, even their lives, working in american mills, mines and factories. the us rooted out child labor practices 75 years ago. but today, us agriculture remains a stronghold for child labor. >> i know most kids come out here to help their parents out, get the money to pay the bills. >> it's just another day on the fields of america. >> hi, can you tell me your name? g