Massachusetts' ongoing construction boom has brought with it a problem: wage theft — when workers don't get things like overtime or sick pay, or when they're not paid at all — on a massive scale.

Last year, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office brought more than $2.7 million in penalties and restitution against local construction companies. Some of that money is going to the more than 1,000 Massachusetts workers who were victims of wage theft last year.

Javier Hernandez was one of them. He spent six months working construction on a new hotel in Porter Square. But he said that every time it was pay day, “They always say, ‘Next week. Next week. Next week.’”

It was the same story when the holidays came.

“I spent Christmas with no money,” Hernandez said. “I have a kid. 10 years old. So, I couldn’t buy a present for him. Because I’m still waiting for the money. And, and that’s so sad.”

Hernandez’ story is a familiar one to Gladys Vega of the Chelsea Collaborative — a Latino-led social services organization that assists a lot of immigrants and refugees. Vega said immigrants are often targets of unscrupulous employers.

“We probably get 10 to 15 people a week with individual cases of not getting paid, of wage theft,” Vega said. “So, I mean, it's huge.”

In Hernandez’ case, the collaborative was able to work with partners like the local Carpenter’s Union to get the company to pay up. But when the companies don’t cooperate, it’s the job of law enforcement. And Healey has had a busy year busting wage thieves.

“We went after a local construction company that wasn't paying its workers overtime or hourly wages or the prevailing wage that they were supposed to be paying them doing public construction projects,” Healey said. “We cited them over half a million dollars.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey discusses her office’s recent focus on wage theft and the $2.75 million in penalities and restitution recently levied against construction companies for wage theft. Photo taken at the Attorney General’s office in Boston, Massachusetts on Jan. 29, 2019.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

The AG’s office issued citations to 66 construction companies working in the state last year. Those companies face a combined $1.23 million in fines, in addition to providing back pay to more than 1,000 workers.

Healey said many of the investigations are prompted by tips from workers. But a lot of workers are immigrants or undocumented and are afraid to complain.

“Sometimes we've had cases where employers have threatened to report them to federal authorities, for example, to turn them in,” Healey said, “and they use that to say, ‘We're not going to pay you minimum wage. We're going to make you work a whole bunch of extra time without paying you overtime.’”

When dealing with clients of the Chelsea Collaborative, Vega said she has to reassure people that the state and federal officials responsible for protecting workers are not out to deport them.

“People are afraid of [the] federal government because of who we have in the White House,” Vega said. “Even the Federal Labor Department has been very friendly to undocumented workers. So, we must say that we've been very fortunate and very lucky.”

After working with the Collaborative to get his back pay, Hernandez said he wanted to get the word out with a message to people who might find themselves in his situation — a second-language speaker who is being taken advantage of.

“To the Spanish[-speaking] community,” Hernandez said, “don't let this happen. Open your mouth, and talk with anyone. Don't be quiet. Just open up. Open your mouth and talk to them. Say, ‘You owe me money, you pay me.’ Nobody came to work in this country for free.”