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Wage theft rampant in Rio Grande Valley

By Steve Taylor
Rio Grande Guardian

HIDALGO, TEXAS — Alfredo Mendoza (not his real name) thought he was bringing in some extra cash for his family for Christmas.

A friend had recommended him to the mechanics shop in Hidalgo. He worked for a week and put in long hours. His boss had no complaints with his work and said he would pay him next week.

When Mendoza, 33, came back to work his boss said he had no more work for him and he would pay him before the week was out. That was four weeks ago. A father of two and the sole breadwinner in his house, Mendoza is still waiting to get paid.

A news conference was held in Brownsville recently to highlight a number of cases of wage theft in the Rio Grande Valley.

Thus far, Mendoza has been stiffed $200. That would have gone a long way in his household. His wife Juanita stays at home in San Juan and looks after their two young children, Jesus and Sonia. Mendoza had told his wife that the money would help buy Christmas presents for the children.

Mendoza cannot come over from Reynosa every day to hustle for his week’s pay. Customs and Border Protection officials get suspicious if he comes over every day, even though he has a visa. So, on Christmas Eve, Mendoza’s mother-in-law, Melena Herrera who lives in Pharr, visited the mechanic shop owner’s house.

He was out but his wife gave her his phone number. In a telephone conversation, he said he had spent the $200 but would pay Mendoza next week. He told Herrera to come back the day after New Year’s Day.

“We are always praying we find an honorable employer. Someone who will respect the work we have done and pay us what we were told we would get,” said Mendoza, speaking in Spanish. “There is a lot of exploitation.”

Incidents like this are on the rise in the Rio Grande Valley, according to Fuerza del Valle Workers Center, a non-profit set up to fight wage theft. The group says undocumented immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous employers because their bosses know many of them will not seek legal redress. Many do not want to be in the spotlight. It is the reason Raul Mendoza asked that his real name not be used.

More examples of wage theft were provided at a news conference held in Brownsville last week. Officials with Fuerza del Valle joined the South Texas Civil Rights Project (STCRP) and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) came together to say their groups had filed three separate lawsuits in federal court against the owners of Asian Buffet, Tortilleria Capistran, and Carwash Plus for wage theft.

Alberto Zarate and Jorge Rubio argue that they were not paid minimum wage or overtime for the long hours they worked. This is in direct violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Texas Minimum Wage Act. The laws establish a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and time and a half for overtime for certain jobs. They are represented by attorney Joseph Martin of STCRP.

According to Martin, Zarate worked at Asian Buffet from January 2012 to October 2012 as a dishwasher and prep cook. During this time he worked six 12-hour days a week, 72 hours total. Every two weeks he was paid $475, which amounts to $3.29 an hour. He was never paid overtime. Zarate is suing Ming Zheng, Asian Buffet’s owner, for over $15,000 in back wages.

According to Martin, Rubio worked at Tortilleria Capistran making tacos from August 2011 to January 2012. He was paid $50 for 10 and 11-hour days. Jorge is suing Ramon Capistran, Tortilleria Capistran’s owner, for over $5,000 in back wages.

Fuerza del Valle organizer Hector Guzman Lopez said the mission of his FDVWC is to “cultivate the leadership and power of unprotected workers, to stop the rampant problem of wage theft, and to build a movement for economic justice in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Guzman said Fuerza del Valle holds a ‘Know Your Rights’ clinic the group holds every Thursday night at 6 p.m. at the Brownsville Community Health Center. He said this how Zarate and Rubio learned of their wage rights. “We are here to support workers ensure they are paid the adequate wages required by law,” said Guzman said.

TRLA is suing…

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