A three-judge panel ruled this week that regardless of an employee’s legal status in the U.S., employers must pay a legal wage, as well as all monies promised workers. The ruling upheld the provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which says that “aliens, authorized to work or not, may recover unpaid and underpaid wages.”
The court’s July 30 ruling was in relation to a case involving six undocumented workers from Guatemala who said they were owed approximately $450,000 in back pay and penalties for work performed at the Jerusalem Cafe in Kansas City, Mo., from 2007 to 2010, according to the Latino Times.
In June 2010, six undocumented workers filed a lawsuit against the Jerusalem Cafe’s former owner, Farid Azzeh, as well as the restaurant’s former manager, Adel Alazzeh. According to the lawsuit, five of the six workers said they each worked 77 hours a week at the restaurant, and because their illegal status prevented them from obtaining official work authorizations, they were paid in cash on a weekly basis.
Despite logging long hours, five of the plaintiffs say there weren’t paid minimum wage and did not receive premium overtime pay. One plaintiff in particular said he worked 77 hours a week for a $300 wage, which translates to an hourly wage of about $3.90.
The court’s opinion follows that of a previous jury verdict, in which the workers were awarded $141,864.04 in damages for unpaid wages, $151,864.04 in liquidated damages, $150,627 in legal fees and $6,561.63 in expenses.
During the legal proceedings, the court barred the defense from mentioning the workers’ immigration status, reasoning that their illegal status was irrelevant because they were seeking wages for previous work and were not attempting to gain employment, which would be unlawful under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
According to the Latino Times, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said in its ruling that federal labor law sometimes trumps federal immigration law. The court explained that not paying undocumented workers a fair wage or for work completed and claiming justification because they are illegals was similar to saying that Al Capone couldn’t have been prosecuted for tax evasion because his earning were illegally made.
U.S. Circuit Judge William Riley said that “numerous district courts, including the one in this case, and the secretary of labor all agree: Employers who unlawfully hire unauthorized aliens must otherwise comply with federal employment laws.”
Both Azzeh and Alazzeh are being held responsible individually for the back wages, and according to their attorney, Jonathan Sternberg, they are unable to pay. After the lawsuit was filed in 2010, Azzeh’s ownership of the Jerusalem Cafe was reportedly dissolved and transferred to other parties. The restaurant is still open for business.
Azzeh has also testified that he “never hired illegals,” after testifying previously that he was not able to verify the workers employment eligibility with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Heather Schlozman, who along with Mark Dugan represented the workers, applauded the court’s decision and said that the “ … resounding message from the court [was that] you can’t exploit these workers with impunity.”
Speaking on behalf of his clients, Sternberg said they planned to ask for a rehearing before all 11 judges in the 8th Circuit appellate court. The most recent ruling was before a three-judge panel from the court.
“My clients and I regret the way this came out, but we’re glad the court took it as seriously as it did,” he said, adding that he thought a more appropriate role for the federal government would be to “enforce the borders.”
Undocumented worker impact in the US
As of May 2013, the estimated number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. was about 11 million. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, many of these immigrants work in the lowest-paying and toughest jobs in the U.S. — the jobs most Americans don’t want.
Historically, many companies have knowingly hired undocumented workers so they could pay them either a very low wage or no wage at all. Unlike legal immigrants and American citizens, many undocumented workers are not able to legally fight for their wages, since they don’t want to attract attention to themselves.
In January, President Obama, as part of his Dream Act speech, said the U.S. government needed to start by cracking down more forcefully on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers and ramp up the penalties against those that knowingly disregard the law. He also said there needs to be a clear path to citizenship for the 11 million individuals who are in the U.S. illegally, and that the immigration system needs a massive overhaul.
According to a July 2013 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), undocumented immigrants in the U.S. already contribute about $10.6 billion in state and local taxes. If undocumented immigrants were allowed to legally work in the U.S. that number could increase to $12.6 billion.
Though it’s currently stalled in the House, the most recent immigration reform legislation would grant undocumented immigrants legal status in the U.S. In addition to helping boost the economy and helping shrink the deficit, a study by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found wages for U.S.-born workers would likely increase if undocumented immigrants were granted legal status.
Based on a June poll from Pew Research, 75 percent of Americans think that because it would be good for the economy, the U.S. government should grant undocumented immigrants legal status.