The women said they came to Massachusetts to escape poverty, police corruption, and the aftermath of natural disasters in their hometowns.
But when they went to work in private homes, the food and restaurant industry, and cleaning office buildings, the women said they were exposed to harsh working conditions and didn’t receive wages they were owed.
On Saturday, a half dozen women, some of them immigrants, described their workplace experiences at a virtual news conference organized by the Matahari Women Workers’ Center in Boston to call attention to wage theft and its impact on essential workers.
The event included a recorded message from state attorney general Maura Healey, who said last year her office ordered employers to pay more than $12.3 million in restitution and penalties for violating wage and hour laws.
“Today we’re here for a simple reason: to ensure that every worker is paid what they’re owed,” said Healey. Wage theft “makes it harder for families to pay their rent, buy groceries, to pay for education and health care. And it doesn’t just hurt workers and their families, it hurts all of us.”
Nearly $1 billion in wages is stolen annually from workers across the state, according to Kevin Brousseau, political director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO
Julia Beebe, lead organizer for Matahari Women Workers’ Center, said anecdotal evidence suggests wage theft has increased since the coronavirus pandemic brought about economic anxiety and dwindling employment opportunities.
“Unscrupulous employers who were aware of that and aware of a general level of need and economic crisis happening in the community took advantage of that to offer substandard and illegal pay,” she said.
Nearly 200 people participated in the event, which coincided with a training session for nannies about workplace rights and child care.
Organizers encouraged participants to advocate for bills pending at the State House that would make lead contractors liable for wage theft committed by their subcontractors and require employers to pay the prevailing minimum wage to tipped workers.
The six women who shared their stories are owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages for work they performed, organizers said.
Zoe Abreu, who moved to Boston from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017, said she was fired from her job cleaning office buildings after she challenged her employer for not following minimum wage laws.
Before she was terminated, Abreu said she was working 15 hours daily with a 30-minute break.
At one point, she said she fell ill, was taken to a hospital by ambulance, and stayed there for more than a month. Abreu said her employer threatened to fire her if she didn’t return to her job.
“My employer pressured me constantly so that I would come back to work,” said Abreu, whose remarks were translated from Spanish to English by an interpreter.
Abreu cried as she spoke, prompting people to share supportive messages through a chat feature on the videoconference platform.
“When employers violate the law, it means that the workers are left hopeless and unprotected,” Abreu said.
Another woman said she and others were fired without explanation last year from Hoff’s Bakery in Malden.
Flor, the former bakery worker who was identified only by her first name, said that before she was fired, the company’s management instructed her to apply for her job through a temporary agency in order to keep working.
“I wanted to keep my job and follow the orders,” said Flor, whose remarks were translated from Spanish to English by an interpreter.
The coalition Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and La Comunidad Inc., a nonprofit organization in Everett, have been advocating on behalf of the bakery workers who lost their jobs, according to their websites.
In an e-mail, Hoff’s Bakery founder Vincent Frattura said US Immigration and Customs Enforcement required the company to terminate some workers in 2019 and 2020.
The business temporarily suspended operations last year during the pandemic, he said, but rehired employees who were legally eligible when it reopened.
“Hoff’s workforce has been growing and we welcome former and new employees who demonstrate they are eligible to work,” Frattura said. “We are an equal opportunity employer and are proud of the role we play as a business and employer in Malden.”
Derlin Castro, a domestic worker, said she is taking legal action against a woman who hired her as a house cleaner. After the job started, Castro said, the woman required her to care for her four grandchildren, drive her to medical appointments, and be available to work on an on-call basis. The woman didn’t compensate her, Castro said, beyond the $350 weekly wage agreed to for doing the cleaning.
“I’m telling you, women, we need to raise our voices,” Castro said. “I’m going to raise my voice, not just for myself, but for others who are maybe scared to speak so that we are not afraid.”