Juana is a single mother who supported her family by working 11-hour days as a cook in a restaurant where she earned $7.50 an hour, received no benefits or paid leave, and was never paid on time. Shortly before telling this story, Juana quit her job because her employer owed her nearly $3,000 in compensation for more than six weeks of work. Juana’s situation is common in the low-wage labor market, where informal work arrangements often include long and irregular hours, no overtime pay, no breaks, no paid vacation or sick time, and inconsistent payment, often in cash. I was the only woman there and it was up to me to do everything in the kitchen of a restaurant that sold rotisserie chicken. I made all kinds of food: tamales, pupusas, and all the traditional dishes. I had some problems with my boss because he was not one to pay on time. Right now he owes us three paychecks, and he is even behind on our pay from last year. This pay period I left because I couldn’t take it anymore. He owes me one check of $1,000 and two more of $900. In the two years that Juana worked at the rotisserie chicken restaurant, she never knew when she could expect to be paid. Juana’s employer told her and her coworkers that he couldn’t pay them regularly because he had to cover the restaurant’s operating expenses, including the rent and supplies. I know the pressures he faces, but I get mad. Thankfully, with God’s help, I was saving some of the little that I earned. When he would say that he couldn’t pay us, I would leave him alone until he could. There are three of us who work there. The other women are still there waiting. They say that they are going to wait because our boss just has to pay us. They have hope. We were always there waiting because we needed the work. Sometimes you think that you can’t go anywhere else and you stay. Juana’s missing pay has affected her health and her family’s well-being. While she waits for her employer to pay her, she has had to move her family and rely on the part-time wages of her two teenage sons. You have to think about supporting your children and your stress goes up. Recently I moved because I don’t have enough to pay my rent. I’m just going to go back to talk to [my former boss], and I hope he can pay me even if it’s only for one pay period, or maybe he’ll pay me later. That is what I’m going to go see, and if he doesn’t pay me, well then I will have to get help. I can’t lose. That was my work that cost so much sacrifice. Thank goodness my sons are studying and working now. My youngest son goes to school and works at night. He doesn’t make much, only $450 every two weeks. My other son also makes very little because he works a part-time job. They say to me, “Mama, don’t work! You shouldn’t work if they don’t pay you. What are you doing?” Juana decided she would rather have no job and look for something new than continue to work and not be paid. As she searches for a new job, Juana has taken on temporary work cleaning and cooking to support her family. She has not given up on the back pay she is owed, but she hopes that she can find something better.
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