Eight former Little Village Car Wash workers who have been fighting for years to recoup over $262,000 in alleged stolen wages faced a major setback Thursday.
A court hearing that had been scheduled in the wage theft case, which dates back to 2012, was canceled after the employer abruptly filed for bankruptcy.
Workers had been expecting a ruling Thursday in the case, which the Illinois Labor Department brought against the employer to recover unpaid wages stemming from minimum wage and overtime violations.
The car wash, which was sold last year by owner Octavio Rodriguez, was located at 2600 W. Cermak Road.
Miguel Angel Fernandez, 43, worked there from 2006 to 2014 and has yet to receive $19,755 in unpaid wages.
"I feel scammed," he said through a translator outside the Daley Center. "We've been fighting this for a long time. And he was able to sell his business and recover his money. We weren't able to recover anything, at least not yet."
Workers claim they were not paid an hourly minimum wage. Instead, they were paid per car they washed.
"They were paying us 50 cents per car," Sabino Cervantes, 63, who worked at Little Village Car Wash for about four years, said through a translator. "After we organized and we did a little bit of negotiation, we were able to get a dollar per car. It still wasn't adequate wages. We wanted justice."
The employer reportedly owes Cervantes $38,475 in outstanding wages.
With the help of the Arise Chicago worker center, the car wash employees brought wage violation complaints to the Illinois Labor Department in late 2012. In May 2013, the department sided with the workers, ordering the employer to pay the outstanding wages. But the car wash owner failed to do so. As a result, the Labor Department referred the case the Illinois Attorney General's Office, which sued the employer in October 2014 for $262,901.
One the eve of today's court date, the car wash owner made an offer to settle the case for $25,000, according to Arise Chicago's Jorge Mujica.
"We refused, and then the employer filed for bankruptcy," he said. "Court has been canceled because he filed for bankruptcy, but we are going to continue the case."
As for next steps, Mujica said each worker will have to claim in bankruptcy court that they are creditors owed money by the employer.
"The disgrace here is that all other debts take priority over wages," Mujica said. "Nevertheless, the wages are part of the bankruptcy process."
The workers and their allies are accusing the employer of engaging in a "false bankruptcy."
Mujica noted that Rodriguez sold the car wash building for about $1.5 million.
"You don't get $1.5 million and then declare bankruptcy," he said. "Yesterday, he made an offer for $25,000, and then filed for bankruptcy. You cannot go around offering $25,000 and filing for bankruptcy at the same (time). You either have money, or you don't have money ... This is a completely false bankruptcy."
Here's more from Mujica and Sophia Zaman, executive director of the Raise the Floor Alliance, a coalition of Chicago worker centers:
Rodriguez is the owner of Benny's Pizzeria in Chicago and La Finca, an upscale Mexican restaurant in southwest suburban Summit. He serves on the board of the Frida Kahlo Community Organization, a non-profit in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
Attempts to reach Rodriguez for comment were unsuccessful.
"For four years, we've been fighting for basic rights, for basic wages," Fernandez added. "We're not asking for more money. We're asking for what was owed to us."
The Raise the Floor Alliance is pushing for state legislation to give workers more power in wage theft situations.
Under the bill, HB 1290, workers whose wages have been stolen could file a lien against their employer. And in the event that an employer declares bankruptcy, the legislation would give workers "superpriority status in the bankruptcy process so they would be paid out first," Zaman said.
The legislation is needed, Zaman said, because "state agencies lack the teeth" to enforce rulings in wage theft cases.