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Durham immigrant workers paid back more than $13,000 in stolen wages

Durham immigrant workers hold their checks repaying them more than $13,000 in stolen wages. (Photo courtesy of Siembra NC)

For the third time this year a group of largely undocumented Latinx immigrant workers in the Triangle has successfully pressured an employer to repay stolen wages through a combination of protests, calls from supporters and legal tactics.

Just before Christmas, 20 immigrant former employees of the Durham construction cleanup company HomeHitters Inc received a settlement of $13,352 after several months after launching protests of the company’s owner. The workers had completed their work in February and March of 2019.

“There were many times when I thought this is just not going to happen, but we remained strong and encouraged each other to keep going,” said Nelly Ysleno, who first contacted Siembra NC after receiving a pamphlet about wage theft outside of Compare Foods in Durham. “And now we [have] all this money that we had earned through hard work but didn’t think we were ever going to see, and right before the holidays. It feels really great.”

The workers are all members of Siembra NC, an organization of Latinx people “defending our rights & building power ‘with papers and without papers’ with member leadership teams in Alamance, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Orange and Randolph counties,” according to its website.

The group says a dialogue with Demetrius Liverman, CEO of Homehitters, about the stolen wages began in October, nearly six months after workers were ignored and allegedly threatened by the company. A dozen former employees, along with members of the Durham Workers’ Assembly, had also marched onto a construction site where the company held a contract to hand deliver their demand letter after emails and certified mail were ignored, according to Siembra.

It took several weeks of negotiations and some protesting before the workers received 95 percent of their stolen wages as part of a settlement.

The workers’ victory came two months after a group of former Mebane Hampton Inn employees concluded stolen wage negotiations and a group of Greensboro immigrant cleaners successfully won repayment of their stolen wages in July. Immigrant workers supported by Siembra have received more than $45,000 this year as a result of community pressure campaigns, according to the organization.

All of the workers involved were subject to threats by management, some involving their legal status, the organization states in a news release. They were supported in negotiating the final settlement by Durham pro bono attorney Elizabeth Simpson.

Wage theft can occur in many different ways, but is ultimately when a worker does not receive their legally or contractually promised wages. Examples include employers not paying overtime, not paying for all the hours an employee works, withholding a last paycheck or not paying minimum wage.

Siembra states that their public pressure campaigns became necessary in part because the state Department of Labor under the leadership of Cherie Berry is notoriously unwilling to aggressively investigate claims of wage theft — and when it does, it’s only for W2 employees, not for verbal contracts such as those at issue in these recent cases). A 2017 report estimates that $316 million in wages are stolen each year from North Carolina employees.

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