A protest in Seattle. Photo by Alex Garland/Demotix.Karim Ameri allegedly decided to play hardball after learning that his Los Angeles recycling business was under investigation for allegedly failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime to workers putting in 60-hour weeks.Editor’s NoteInvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.Court records say Ameri pressured employees of Recycling Innovations, a string of bottle-and-can redemption centers, to lie to federal officials about his company’s pay practices. He allegedly threatened to fire workers or report them to immigration authorities if they cooperated with U.S. Labor Department investigators.In one court document, Ameri is said to have “threatened to break an employee’s arm” — although an accountant for the business said Ameri got tripped up by language barriers and didn’t mean it as a real threat of violence.Federal officials in December took the unusual step of getting a restraining order to bar threats or interference with their investigation. Without admitting wrongdoing, the company in May agreed in a settlement to pay more than $74,000 in back wages and damages to 13 underpaid workers. Ameri declined to comment.The case reflects a fact of life about wage abuses. Violations often are concealed, and regulators hindered, because workers fear what will happen if they speak up.
A warehouse workers protest in Illinois. Photo: Peoplesworld/FlickrFor workers stuck on the bottom rung, living on poverty wages is hard enough. But many also are victims of wage theft, a catch-all term for payroll abuses that cheat workers of income they are supposedly guaranteed by law.Editor’s NoteInvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.Over the last few years employers ranging from baseball’s San Francisco Giants to Subway franchises to Farmer’s Insurance have been cited for wage violations. More often, though, wage abuses are not reported by victims or punished by authorities despite being routine in some low-wage industries.“If you steal from your employer, you’re going to be hauled out of the workplace in handcuffs,” said Kim Bobo, a Chicago workers rights advocate and author. “But if your employer steals from you, you’ll be lucky to get your money back.Victims typically are low wage, low-skilled workers desperate to hang on to their jobs. Frequently, they are immigrants—the most vulnerable and least apt to speak up. “They know that if they complain, there’s always someone else out there who is willing to take their job,” said Maria Echaveste, a former labor official during the Clinton administration who is now at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.While heart-breaking for employees, wage theft also robs federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars in taxes, and puts employers who play by the rules at a serious competitive disadvantage.