Isabel's Story: Justice In The Face of Wage Theft

"We all have a right to our pay and to be treated fairly and with respect in our jobs, regardless of our immigration status." - Isabel

"We all have a right to our pay and to be treated fairly and with respect in our jobs, regardless of our immigration status." - Isabel

My husband and I came to Tucson from Mexico eleven years ago to build a better future for our children and ourselves. Since we’ve been here, it hasn’t been easy, but we work hard and have a strong and happy family, with three wonderful and energetic children. My husband and I work together in a carpet cleaning business. That doesn’t always provide enough to cover all of our expenses, so we have to find additional jobs to make ends meet. We work long hours in tiring, physical jobs. It’s not always easy to work so hard with three young children, but we do what we have to do to get by.

Last year, I found an additional job in a company that provided cleaning services for several large companies in Tucson. I worked nights, for six or seven days a week, cleaning bathrooms, kitchens, and lobbies. I would get to work at 10pm and finish the next morning. The work was hard and our boss demanded that we work quickly and efficiently to finish early in the morning. By the time I arrived at home, all I wanted to do was sleep, but it was time for me to get my children ready for school. I was exhausted, but happy for the extra income. In that time, we really needed the money because the carpet cleaning business was slow and we weren’t making enough to pay our rent.

Unfortunately, it took me several months to see all of the money that I earned at that job. After a few weeks, all of us working on the night cleaning shift realized there were problems. The man who hired us stopped coming to work and did not pay us on time. When we tried to contact him, he refused to answer our calls. A supervisor from another company came and told us to keep working, promising that we would be paid. We were all eager to keep working and earning money, but the pay checks weren’t coming.

Some of us spoke with the management of the companies that owned the buildings where we cleaned, asking them to pay our wages. They told us we weren’t their employees, and gave us a number to call. When we called that number, a secretary told us to send her our hours and she would send our pay checks. We sent her the information she requested, but we did not receive our wages. I received one check, which was for just a fraction of the hours I had worked. Some of my colleagues received nothing at all.

We all eventually realized that our paychecks simply were not coming. We stopped going to work, but we stayed in touch with each other.

I was angry and worried. I felt cheated, but I didn’t know where to turn. My husband and I were struggling to pay our bills and put food on the table. We had to ask for help from our church in order to get by during those months. All of us kept making calls to attempt to get our pay.  

Finally, we found an organization called La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. They had a wage theft clinic that helped people who had not been paid properly work together to obtain the wages owed to them. All of us met there, and we began to strategize ways to receive our pay. We wrote letters, made telephone calls, and organized a protest. Community members came out to show their support. Through Derechos, we also got in touch with the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the University of Arizona. We met with law students, who gathered details from each of us about the amounts we were owed. Finally, after months of negotiations, we were paid our unpaid wages in full, plus a penalty for the long delay.

I know that a lot of immigrant workers are afraid to fight for their rights. Some people think that just because someone is undocumented that they don’t have any rights, but that’s not true. We all have a right to our pay and to be treated fairly and with respect in our jobs, regardless of our immigration status. I am grateful for the support of the Workers’ Rights Clinic, La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, and all of my coworkers who stayed strong and determined to fight for our wages. I hope that other people who are in the same situation know that they can stand firm and fight for their wages too.

The Workers’ Rights Clinic is part of the Bacon Immigration Law & Policy Program at the University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law.  In the clinic, law students under attorney supervision provide free legal advice and representation to low-wage immigrant workers in Southern Arizona.  Through collaborative work with a wide range of community partners, the clinic aims to ensure that workers, regardless of immigration status, can advocate for the fair payment of wages, confront discrimination and sexual harassment, and exercise their right to collectively organize. In addition to direct legal services, the clinic also conducts outreach presentations and undertakes policy research and advocacy on issues of importance to low-wage workers in our region. 

In the case of Isabel and her colleagues, the clinic partnered with the unpaid workers and La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, a community-based advocacy organization, to provide legal support for their efforts to obtain the wages. Clinic members interviewed each of the workers, conducted legal research to support their claims, and engaged in extensive negotiations with the employer’s attorney. After several months of negotiations, the clinic reached a settlement for Isabel and each of her colleagues that they all agreed was fair compensation for their work and for the delay in receiving their timely wages.

Click here to learn more about some highlights of the clients, students, and partnerships that filled the 2015-16 year at the Bacon Immigration Law & Policy Program.