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You Should Probably Double Check Your Pay Stub

This is my story behind my first radio story.

A couple weeks ago, around midnight on a Saturday night, I walked down Dekalb Street in Brooklyn with a shot gun mic and a marantz recorder.

I was attempting to record a “scene” for my first radio piece. The story was about wage theft in New York City’s restaurants. But every time I asked someone about wage theft their eyes glazed over. No one was quite sure what I meant.

Wage theft is a confusing term. It can mean so many different things. Sometimes employers don’t pay their employees the minimum wage. Sometimes they skimp out on over time. One form of wage theft - the spread of hours law - was almost totally unheard of (and probably abided by just as rarely). The more I described the different ways employers steal from their workers, the more I saw people coming back into focus. Their eyes would narrow, as if searching for something, and then they would interrupt to tell me their story.

I spoke to eleven servers on that one Saturday night on Dekalb. Eight of them told me their own stories of wage theft.

One young server named Angel said he worked at a restaurant in Brooklyn where the other servers stopped tipping him out. “Long story short,” He told me. “I ended up getting appendicitis and they took me off the schedule while I was recovering.”

Another server, May Chung, had a slightly more positive story. She said a manager had taken money out of her wages. She told me that once the owner realized what was happening, they fired the thieving manager and paid the workers out in a lump sum.

My favourite moment was when I asked one server, Aliya, if she’d ever experienced wage theft. She turned around and smacked her manager. “While we’re on the subject,” Aliya said. “I didn’t get paid for fucking training which is totally illegal.”

“Nobody told you we don’t pay for training?” Asked the manager.

“Yeah, I got told,” Aliya shot back. “But it’s still illegal! You can’t not pay for training, that shit is illegal!”

The manager, a little defensively, told her, “The only places that I have gotten paid for training is corporate run places.”

“Fuck that!” Aliya snapped.

I guess I hit a nerve. She wasn’t the only one who told me about unpaid training. Becca, who used to work in a coffee shop, told me that her boss paid the trainees out of the workers’ tip pool. She said it was especially annoying when a trainee would bail and not come back again. Why did she have to invest money in trainees she might never see again?

These stories didn’t make it into my final radio piece but I felt like they deserved to be told somewhere.

Here’s the link to the final piece: latinousa.org/2014/08/15/wage-theft-new-york-city/

Sarah BarrettComment