The following is a true story of wage theft. In the summer of 2011, I conducted interviews with individuals who had experienced wage theft (and other labor violations) in Memphis, TN. This was for a project with Workers Interfaith Network, which sought to share these stories and educate the public about wage theft in the community. Pseudonyms have been used to protect identities.
Jamal’s passion is working on cars. A mechanic by trade, he currently works as a technician at a national oil change shop in Memphis, TN. Although he really enjoys his job and appreciates being able to do what he loves, he didn’t appreciate it so much when one day, his manager asked him to work while he was on his lunch break.
The shop where Jamal works is normally staffed with four people at a time, but management will sometimes send two people home if business is slow. When there are only two people left on staff, one of the workers will often take his 30-minute lunch break while the other continues to service cars. While Jamal was working, his manager asked him to clock out and begin his lunch break. As soon as he clocked out, two cars pulled up for an oil change. His manager then asked him to “help out” with both cars, even though he was on break.
At first, Jamal didn’t think it was a big deal, but once he began on the second car, he told the manager that he did not want to work while on break. But the manager brought up the fact that in the past, Jamal had come to work late a couple of times. When the manager told him to help him out with the cars to make up for it, Jamal felt that he was being pressured into essentially working for free.
That day, Jamal worked free for 15 minutes, and was never compensated for that work. He also ended up only getting 15 minutes to eat lunch. For a working man who supports a wife and three children on wages that are just above minimum wage, 15 minutes of pay can make a difference. And what is to say that it won’t happen again? Not surprisingly, Jamal knows of other employees who have also been asked to work while on break. He says that most of them are afraid to say something to the managers because they are afraid of losing their jobs. All that time can add up to serious amounts of lost wages on behalf of hard-working folks everywhere, and serious amounts of free labor for national chains like the one where Jamal works. “It’s a choice,” says Jamal. “You’re not being forced, but at the same time, it’s a thing you can’t do anything about. It makes you feel like you’re being used, like you don’t have rights, that you don’t have any say-so whatsoever.”
When Jamal was pressured by the manager to work off the clock to make up for being late, it really affected how he felt about his position. “He’s going to hang that over my head for the rest of the time I work here. I do admit that I have been late, but at the same time, I don’t think that should be held over my head.” He feels that he should have been disciplined appropriately for the infractions rather than having to feel as though he owes the manager a favor. Jamal’s overall perception of the management at the oil change shop is less than stellar. One manager sits around all day, feet propped up on the desk, while the technicians work hard servicing cars. He has also had to deal with a manager who has told offensive, racist jokes about African Americans. “A lot of times they figure if they’re in a management position, they can ask or do anything, whatever and whenever they want to.” Overall, Jamal feels that this company is a good company to work for, and that his negative experiences there have been shaped by individual managers. “It’s not so much the employer, it’s the employees that really make the difference.”
Jamal feels that employees who are taken advantage of in this way should be able to speak to someone at the company about the situation, a resource he does not currently have access to. He also believes that managers who ask their employees to work during breaks should be fined, and employees should be compensated for any time they worked without being paid. Unfortunately, Jamal does not feel he has any sort of recourse in his current position. “We figure the only thing the district manager is going to do is give the store managers a tap on the wrist. They don’t know what’s going on in the store because it never gets out. The store managers are still going to be there, and somewhere down the line they’re going to do it to somebody else.”
Jamal says that he doesn’t mind being asked to work while on break as long as he can clock back in and be paid for his work. For now, he plans to continue working at the oil change shop in order to save enough money to become an independent mechanic with his own shop. Jamal greatly appreciates the efforts of the Workers Interfaith Network and the individuals who stand up against wage theft and other workplace abuses. “All over the world people are getting misused and abused by their wages and their money, not just black people, but white people, Hispanic, all different kinds of races. We all have rights, but some of us are too weak to fight for ourselves. But there are people like you who are coming to fight for us. We really do salute you all and thank you, and are willing to stand behind you.”
WIN appreciates individuals like Jamal who are willing to take the time to share their experiences with others.