The people who make fancy snacks for first-class passengers flying through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) are getting robbed by their bosses, according to a new class-action lawsuit in California.
A group of 10 employees is suing Flying Food Group Pacific for $15 million over alleged wage theft, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reports. Vendors that operate at LAX are supposed to be subject to the city’s Living Wage Ordinance, which mandates a minimum wage of $15.84 for workers at companies who operate on city land or receive public dollars. Rafael Leon and other Flying Food workers at LAX say they have been earning far less than that for years.
Leon told the Press-Telegram that he now makes $10.25 after starting at $8.50, and that he didn’t realize his wages were illegally low until his sister told him she earned over $15 an hour working a deli counter inside LAX. “What I get paid is not enough to make ends meet,” he told the paper. “You have to work at least five hours of overtime daily to provide for your family.”
Flying Food reported $436 million in revenues in 2013 from preparing high-end cuisine for airlines like Al Italia, Etihad, Delta, IcelandAir, and many others. A company spokesperson has not yet responded to a request for comment on the case.
Wage theft complaints like this one are increasingly common around the country. Alleged manipulation of timecards and other forms of wage theft have been a primary driver of the multi-year campaign of strikes and protests by fast food industry workers, but the problem extends far beyond food service. Retail warehouses that serve multi-billion-dollar companies like Walmart and Amazon have been hit with wage theft suits, as have trucking companies and strip clubs.
Even if they are successful in court, there is no guarantee that Leon and his colleagues will actually see their money. While California has a relatively strong legal system for addressing wage theft allegations, workers who win the argument before state officials rarely ever see the back pay they’re owed. For every 10 companies found guilty of wage theft by the state, six will “suspend, forfeit, cancel, or dissolve their businesses” rather than pay up, according to research from the National Employment Law Project and the University of California Los Angeles. For every six workers who wins a wage theft judgment in their favor, only one ever gets paid.
That’s still more than most American workers can hope for. Strong legal protections for wage theft are relatively rare around the country, and lawmakers in major cities like Houston and Miami have had to overcome fierce resistance from business interests to establish local ordinances to combat the practice. Florida lawmakers are even trying to pre-empt laws like Miami’s by banning such protections statewide. In Missouri and Ohio, budget-slashing lawmakers have starved the agencies that enforce wage and hours protections. And in Colorado, wage theft protections were only politically possible after lawmakers significantly reduced the penalties that companies would face should they be found liable for cheating their workers on payday.
The thin patchwork of coverage for workers whose employers manipulate their timecards or withhold overtime pay has allowed wage theft to flourish. On net, employers steal more from their workers each year than what actual robbers take from every heist and hold-up in the country combined.