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Throughout L.A., people toil unnoticed in jobs for less than minimum wage. And their numbers are increasing. : Working for Less

May 07, 1995|Peter Y. Hong

At a popular Thai restaurant near east Hollywood, lunch for two costs about $15--the same amount waitresses there are paid for an eight-hour workday.

That's $1.88 an hour, less than half the $4.25 hourly minimum wage. Only with tips and by working six days a week does she manage to stay above the federal poverty line of $7,551, earning $10,900 annually. As politicians and economists debate a Clinton Administration proposal to raise the minimum wage to $5.15 an hour, workers like those in the restaurant toil unnoticed in the inner city for employers who flout longstanding labor laws.

Linda, 20, a waitress who worked in the restaurant until last month, said she knows that job--and the waitress job she now has at another restaurant for $20 a day--is exploitative. But she feels it's the best she can hope for. "I know it's not fair, but I don't have a choice."

Her plight is common throughout Los Angeles and the state, where labor officials say that the number of workers who are paid less than the minimum wage has swelled in the past 10 years.

Though exact numbers for Los Angeles are unavailable, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 129,000 hourly workers in California are paid less than the minimum wage. And labor officials said that the number of workers whose pay amounts to less than the minimum may be higher, since they did not count workers paid a flat weekly or monthly salary. The bureau changed its method of counting such workers last year, so the 129,000 figure for 1994 is not comparable to the 79,000 sub-minimum wage workers reported in 1993.

State and federal labor officials who enforce wage laws say the violations are most common in garment factories and small businesses such as restaurants. But larger stores and construction companies are often among those cited as well. Underpaid workers now clean offices, bag groceries, build houses or sew garments for pay less than the minimum wage.

"I see horrible situations of abuse and exploitation," said Jose Millan, the state's assistant labor commissioner. One of the biggest recent cases involved a Koreatown supermarket that faces $1.2 million in fines and other penalties for allegedly underpaying 167 workers and improperly withholding funds from their paychecks over two years, among other violations. The case is pending.

Such conditions are byproducts of bigger upheavals in California, the nation and world. The flight of manufacturing jobs from Los Angeles, the influx of immigrants and cutbacks in government agencies responsible for enforcing labor laws have each played a role in lowering wages.

From 1979 to 1994, 286,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Southern California as aerospace, auto and other plants closed, according to Goetz Wolff, a UCLA labor economist who tracks Southern California employment patterns. Many of the jobs paid high wages and provided medical and other benefits to those without skills or schooling beyond high school.

Meanwhile, the number of service and garment industry jobs, which typically are low-paying, increased, Wolff said. These jobs, he added, are now the dominant entry-level jobs for unskilled workers.

"The rungs in the ladder of opportunity were ripped out," Wolff said, by plant closings and the rise in hotel, restaurant and sewing jobs.

The Argumedo family knows what it's like to fall from the ladder. Throughout the 1980s, the family lived comfortably on the money Tomas Argumedo, 58, made working in a furniture factory. When the plant closed in 1991, Tomas, his wife Amelia and son Thomas joined the low-wage work force. Unable to find other jobs, they agreed to clean by themselves an eight-story office building on 6th Street in Koreatown for $1,200 a month--$3.33 an hour.

Five days a week, the family left their Lynwood apartment in their '77 Buick to clean the building, which took them six hours each day. After three months, the cleaning contractor who employed them cut their pay to $800 a month, or $2.22 an hour. They were even asked to pay $30 a month for parking, which they refused to do.

The Argumedos often were paid late, or given only a fraction of their pay on time, with the rest coming weeks later. The contractor could not be reached for comment. Labor officials say such practices are common among small employers who pay workers in cash.

The Argumedos would often miss rent or other bill payments while waiting to be paid, and would later have to pay penalties to creditors. In late 1993, their employer stopped paying them altogether, saying that his business was faltering and that he would pay them as soon as he could come up with the cash.

With no money coming in, the family relied on help from relatives and whatever dollars they could come up with through odd jobs to get by, recalled Thomas Argumedo, 22. "I was collecting cans, working at swap meets, anything to come up with some money," he said.

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