Backlog of Wage Theft Complaints Prompts Call for More Labor Inspectors


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HARTFORD — When Alida Arreaga tried to cash her paycheck, she said it bounced due to a lack of funds, marking the second consecutive payment failure from her Hartford-based restaurant job. So last Friday, she filed a wage theft complaint with the state Department of Labor.

“Wage theft is disgraceful and impacts our members’ ability to stay healthy and housed and care for their families,” Arreaga said Tuesday during a public hearing of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, which discussed a proposal to increase the number of wage and hour inspectors for the DOL. 

There are a wide variety of cases that qualify as wage theft under state and federal regulations, ranging from paying below minimum wage, not recognizing overtime and not receiving a paycheck. This practice frequently affects migrant workers, like Arreaga and a dozen other Spanish speakers who testified at the public hearing, who said they fear the consequences if they complain to a government agency. Some of the undocumented workers testified that their employers threatened to deport them for claiming stolen wages.

But due to a high volume of wage violation claims, the DOL is facing a monthslong backlog. The bill aims to solve this problem by doubling the department’s staff by mid-2026, employing at least 45 inspectors. The proposal did not specify how much it would cost to hire the additional workers.

“Gov. Ned Lamont understands the concerns of those who want the state to hire additional inspectors to accelerate reviews of claims related to wage and hour laws,” said Julia Bergman, spokesperson for the governor. But she added that any adjustment in staffing levels needed to be part of the state’s final budget. 

Bella Jiménez Vázquez, a construction worker, said she experienced wage theft two years ago after her employer did not pay overtime and failed to pay her and her co-workers for the last few weeks on the job.

“I am a single mother and I have to support my two minor children who depend on me. Since I did not get paid for several weeks and I did not work for a while, I had to ask for a loan with very high interest that I am still paying today,” Jiménez Vázquez said during the hearing. “It is not fair that employers steal from us in such a cynical way and that the authorities do nothing.”

Jiménez Vázquez complained to the DOL, but said she was told they could not take her case if she didn’t have a Social Security number. 

“The department employee was wrong. We immigrant workers have rights, we work and pay taxes just like everyone else,” she said. “Employers that steal wages are criminals and should be treated as such.”

In an email to CT Examiner after publication, Juliet Manalan, Communications Director for the Connecticut Department of Labor, emphasized that wage investigations are conducted for all workers, regardless of immigration status. Manalan said inspectors audit time and payroll records and interview employees to determine whether violations have occurred, regardless of immigration status.

Between 2019 and 2022, the state DOL ordered employers to pay $17 million in stolen wages after investigations, the CT Mirror reported. Industries with the most such claims included restaurants and home health care services, particularly concentrated in Fairfield County.

However, not all workers file claims due to fear of retaliation. 

Jenny Cornejo, a member of the migrant organization Unidad Latina en Acción, said she accompanied a friend to claim an outstanding paycheck. After an argument, the employer allegedly returned with a gun and yelled at her friend to “get out of here, illegal immigrant. I’ll call the police because you’re invading my house,” Cornejo testified on Tuesday. She said her friend later filed a claim with the DOL in 2021 but has yet to hear back. 

The average backlog is eight months for Wage and Workplace Standards Division claims, according to inspector Emilio Theodoratos. The main reason for the delays is the lack of staffing, he said, which not only hurts workers who make claims but also employers who don’t fully understand their responsibilities.

“Proper staffing would expand our abilities to conduct outreach and have more of a proactive approach to preventing wage and hour violations,” Theodoratos said. “If we have the capacity to conduct seminars to educate not only employers but employees, I believe the number of violations could be decreased.”

Currently, the division has 21 inspectors, seven of whom speak Spanish. The bill requires the department to employ at least 22 wage and hour inspectors by Oct. 1 and have at least 45 inspectors by June 2026.

Hiring more Spanish-speaking inspectors is one of the demands supported by Bridgeport resident Iván Abarca, a Connecticut Worker Center member and victim of wage theft. Abarca said he was hired to do painting and carpentry work, but was never paid. With the help of the Connecticut Worker Center, a grassroots organization that supports migrants, he filed a complaint with the DOL.

“I was afraid to talk to a government agency. Fortunately, one of the investigators spoke my language. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been if I had to speak through interpreters. He understood my language and my culture,” Abarca said during the hearing. “Having more inspectors in our language would help us defend our rights. In this session, you have the chance to make a real change.”

This story has been updated to include comments from the Department of Labor