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A Gallup couple claimed a major legal victory this month after a judge ordered their former employer to pay them more than $116,000 in damages in connection with unpaid wages.
Eleventh Judicial District Judge Robert A. Aragon ordered The 505 Burgers Farmington LLC and Morgan Newsom to pay $116,534 in back wages, interest and penalties to the couple, Jose and Sandra Olivas, following a legal battle that spanned more than two years.
Part of that payment includes nearly $62,000 due to an enforcement rule in the state’s Minimum Wage Act.
At a Wednesday news conference about the ruling at the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solution’s Gallup office, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a workers’ rights organization, announced the launch of a new initiative aimed at getting workers in the state to speak up on wage theft.
“I think this ruling, and the work that DWS did in investigating this case and taking it to trial, is really a wake-up call for employers,” Somos Un Pueblo Unido attorney Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán told the Journal.
Newsom did not respond to messages requesting comment.
The Olivases’ dispute with Newsom and his Gallup restaurant arose more than five years ago when the couple worked for him at The 505 Burgers & Wings, according to Aragon’s order, which was filed Aug. 4. The couple moved temporarily to Farmington to help Newsom open a new restaurant there.
The Olivases said they submitted time cards to Newsom showing they worked 1,680 hours combined of regular work hours and a combined 1,884 hours of overtime. Jose Olivas was paid only a portion of his time worked, while Sandra Olivas was not paid at all for the time she worked outside of rent payments.
Jose Olivas was employed at $13 per hour, while Sandra Olivas’ wage was set at $10 per hour, the order said.
The couple took their claim to the Department of Workforce Solutions’ Labor Relations Division, but were initially denied due to a previous internal policy that did not allow the department to take on wage claims exceeding $10,000, according to the court order. Because of that policy, Jose Olivas, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, and several other individuals and workers’ rights organizations filed a class action lawsuit against DWS in 2017. It resulted in a settlement agreement in 2018. After the Olivases resubmitted their claim with DWS that same year, the department agreed to take on their claim and investigate it.
Jose Olivas said he and his wife continued to push the department to investigate their claim because, in many cases, workers don’t speak up when wage theft takes place in the workplace.
“As a worker, you’re always in fear of retaliation,” Jose Olivas told the Journal. “A lot of people don’t speak out because of that.”
DWS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why the department did not previously accept wage claims of more than $10,000.
A new initiative
Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an organization the Olivases are part of, plans to use the couple’s wage theft claim and victory as a template for how to get others to speak up.
The organization is doing that through a new initiative called “Somos Esenciales,” which translates to “We Are Essential” in English, Ibañez Guzmán said.
The goal is to get the initiative installed in the other counties that the organization has operations in, she added.
DWS has received about 72 wage-related claims since June, and 350 cases are currently under investigation by the department as of July, according a report provided by a department spokeswoman.
A report from the National Employment Law Project shows that, across the country in 2019, nearly $10 billion was taken from workers who earned less than $13 an hour and were subject to forced arbitration agreements.
“This occurs in New Mexico and that’s why we need DWS to continue doing the type of work that it did in this case – and also, you know, doing its part in terms of also informing the public,” Ibañez Guzmán said.