Undocumented work leads to workers not getting paid | VailDaily.com

Undocumented work leads to workers not getting paid

Melanie Wong
Vail CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Isela Hernandez thought she was making a steady income cleaning houses for more than a year.

Hernandez is an undocumented immigrant, so the job was informal ” no papers to fill out, no agreements and she was paid in cash.

However, in July, Hernandez’s employer moved from the state and stopped paying her, resulting in two weeks of unpaid work that totaled about $1,000, said Hernandez, who asked that her real name not be printed.

Not knowing English, and as an undocumented immigrant, she wasn’t sure what to do until someone advised her to file a small claims summons and helped her get a court date. Her employer, Heyra Arteaga, formerly of Eagle, moved, and according to Hernandez, has been evading the court summons.

Arteaga, who now lives in Wyoming, said she paid Hernandez for her work and doesn’t owe her any money.

Hernandez said that puts her in a tough situation ” while the money is important to her family, the cost of pursuing the case may be too high.

The family has already spent about $100 to file the claim, and Hernandez said she knows there are other workers in her situation.

“I’m not afraid to go to court,” she said. “I know I’m not the only one this is happening to.”

While it may be impossible to prove who is right in Hernandez’s case, the story is not uncommon, said area attorneys and immigrant advocates.

Often it is a case of subcontractors who tell their undocumented employees they don’t have enough money to pay them, or an informal job like Hernandez’s where the money stops coming.

Glenwood Springs-based immigration attorney Ted Hess said he’s seen an increase in cases of undocumented immigrants not getting paid for work in the last year.

“I think it has something to do with the economy,” he said.

Many immigrants don’t know their legal options and rights, and many just take their losses, Hess said.

“The problem is that they’re not familiar with the system, and they’re uncomfortable going to court for fear they might be apprehended by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” he said.

Immigrants can make a small claims case, like Hernandez, or if the work was done for a construction project, they can file a mechanics lien, which prevents the property from being transferred until all the work has been paid for.

Although anyone, regardless of legal status, can file these claims, and federal laws offer everyone equal protection, the process is difficult for non-English speakers, Hess said.

“Small claims judges in Garfield and Eagle County usually have no sympathy for employers who are ripping wage earners off,” he said. “Laws that you have to pay any employee regardless of immigration status are well established.

Hernandez said she thinks it is unlikely she will get her money. It doesn’t matter that she has a set court date if the summons can’t be served, she said.

She shrugs and shakes her head ” she plans to move back to Mexico soon anyway, where she used to be an accountant, she said.

Still, $1,000 is a sizable amount for Hernandez, her husband, who works in construction, and their two young daughters, she said.

“At first I was angry, but now I accept it,” she said. “I’m just disappointed in people.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.

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