A closed fist, held up against a brick wall

The past few years have seen a flurry of workers organizing across the country, from Starbucks and Amazon workers to new forms of cooperative ownership and governance sharing. NPQ’s column, We Stood Up, features the voices of people doing the hard work of realizing economic justice in their workplaces. These stories come from workers who want to share their experiences building a democratic economy and a fairer world so that others can learn from their efforts.

As a caregiver, it can be hard to say when my shifts start and end. Day and night, I work, caring for elderly patients who can no longer live independently. I move patients from their beds to the wheelchairs, change their diapers, administer medications, and feed their meals. I do laundry, clean the house, and provide patients with what they need to feel safe and comfortable. Some need special attention, like being rotated every two hours to prevent bed sores. Sometimes I don’t get a whole night’s sleep to ensure patients with dementia don’t wander outside in the middle of the night. When I finish with one person, I repeat the routine with others—every day.

It’s difficult work, but I think of my patients like family, so I endured. That’s why I was angry to be paid only $54 a day by my previous employer. I received no overtime pay, no matter how many hours I worked. I later learned this is a form of wage theft after talking to coworkers working with the Pilipino Worker Center, a nonprofit that helps improve conditions for Pilipino workers in Southern California.

We were afraid of what would happen, but we were no longer going through it alone.

Wage theft can be hard to prove, and it is common in industries that already pay low wages. In California alone, tens of thousands of workers in restaurants and hotels, construction, farms, warehouses, and more are not paid their full wages.

When I learned my employer was stealing my wages, I kept my head down at first. I couldn’t leave my job because I needed to support my family in the Philippines. But the longer I stayed, the more upset I got. I told my supervisor that my salary did not match the hours I worked, but they told me I wouldn’t be paid more because of my immigration status. I felt like someone was robbing me, even though I was working hard.

Soon, I realized it wasn’t just me. Many of my colleagues experienced the same treatment. When we complained, our employer ignored us and then threatened to report us to immigration authorities. But we didn’t give up, filing a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office. We were afraid of what would happen, but we were no longer going through it alone. We had each other.

With help from the Pilipino Worker Center and immigration lawyers, we forged a path toward demanding fair treatment on the job, and we took legal action against our employers for violating our rights.

Last year, our group of over 140 fellow caregivers received our first payment toward a settlement of over $5 million—California’s largest settlement in a residential care wage theft case—for years of underpaid work. Now, salaries are based on the law, not what the boss says.

Raising our voices was worth it because we changed the caregiving industry. But this is not just a win for us. It’s a step forward for all workers whose wages are unfairly stolen—no matter the industry.