I found out about the restaurant from my brother, who was supposed to work there but had another job. It was only going to be for one day but the owner asked if I could work all week. After that, she hired me and I started working with her regularly as a prep cook in her San Francisco restaurant.
At first, the owner was kind, and there weren’t any issues. But, after about a year of working with her, I noticed things changing. She would yell at me for nothing. There were times when I didn’t receive my breaks and I had been working all day.
Then, she stopped paying us.
That was hard. But trying to get wages that are stolen from you turns out to be even harder.
Initially, the owner started delaying our checks. Supposedly, she was going to give them to us on Mondays, then she changed it to Wednesdays and then to Fridays. Then she started saying, “I’ll pay you the next week,” but it didn’t happen. Still, she kept saying that until it accumulated.
My co-workers and I—there were four of us in the kitchen—kept asking her for our payments and she kept saying she would pay us but she never did.
I thought about leaving but it was the pandemic and there wasn’t much work available, so I stayed. But the whole situation was very stressful. I was very frustrated because, if I already worked for the money, why was I not getting paid?
In October 2021 all of us workers decided we’d had enough. We joined together and told the owner that if the checks did not arrive that day, we would not show up for work. She still did not respond. At this point she stopped coming to the restaurant. At one point, she promised to send the checks with someone else, but we never received them.
We called her and her husband and they didn’t answer us. At one point, the owner’s husband offered to pay a portion of what was owed to us but we declined. We wanted to be paid in full and we were not willing to negotiate that. The owner owes me $12,157.90 in wages, plus penalties for not paying me when I was working for her.
That was when she closed the location, without notice, in December 2021. We kept trying to contact her but neither she nor her husband responded.
It affected me greatly because it was the last few months of the year. I got depressed, I got frustrated, my blood pressure went up, I couldn’t sleep. I was very angry with the owner.
That year was the saddest Christmas I ever had. Christmas without money is very sad. It’s a time of year when you try to send a little extra money back home. I’m 34 years old now. And, in my 10 years of living in the United States, that was the first time I was not able to send a dollar back home to Guatemala.
I send money to my sisters and grandparents, who raised me. I fully support them and the money I send is for everything they need—but in 2021, I couldn’t. My good friend had to lend me money just to be able to settle my bills. I couldn’t do anything and I felt tied by the hands.
My co-workers and I kept looking for someone to help us. We didn’t know what to do. We went to local organizations that can help workers, but they were closed due to COVID-19. Eventually, I came across a church and that’s where someone gave me the phone number for Trabajadores Unidos Workers United.
TUWU, as it’s known, is a worker center, funded by grants and grassroots donations. It finds itself at the intersection of economic justice and immigrant rights—all while holding companies and bosses accountable.
A TUWU organizer talked to me that same day I first called. My co-workers and I were able to share our situation. In time, TUWU helped teach us how to organize.
TUWU helped me prepare a case seeking the wages stolen from me. I filed the case with the San Francisco office of the state’s Labor Commission in February 2022. I wish I could tell you that my case was quickly processed and that I got the money I was owed.
But that’s not how things work.
The Labor Commission, at least its office in San Francisco, has huge backlogs of cases. So, the only thing I’ve received since my filing is the news that the commission has approved my case for a hearing.
That’s right—all I know is that I’ll have a hearing, someday. I haven’t received a date for the hearing. I haven’t been informed if the commission will investigate my claim. This is not uncommon. It typically takes years to receive the money lost in wage theft cases in California.
So, I don’t know if I’ll ever be paid the money I’m owed. But I do know that I’m not going to sit and wait in line for my case to be heard.
I’m continuing to fight for the restaurant owner to pay me back. It’s not easy. She continues to hide from us, even though she still owns a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco, and sometimes appears on TV cooking shows.
Since I became a member of TUWU, we’ve had many meetings and tried many different strategies on how to make the owner accountable. I’m hopeful that some of those will work.
I also learned the word “organize” at TUWU. Along with the word, I’ve learned that, since getting justice takes years, it’s important to organize other workers so that they are aware of their rights and how to move quickly when an employer doesn’t honor those rights.
Now, I know how to advocate and organize with my co-workers. I also feel like a part of the community now and I am able to support other workers experiencing the same situation.
It’s still very discouraging. But I hear from other workers who have had cases with the Labor Commissioner’s Office and eventually had their stolen wages paid.
If I get paid, or I should say when I get paid, I’m going to send money to my grandparents and sisters. I will also save the rest for emergencies because you have to be able to cover any situation that may occur. There are times I worry it could happen to me again.
Early in this process, when I thought of what had happened to me at the restaurant, I would feel like crying. Now, I say that it’s like a mountain and I’m going to keep climbing as high as I can. Why would I not try to reach the peak and get my reward? Now, I share my experience with other workers.