MIAMI — Five months had passed since her pay began to be delayed and 90 days since her health insurance had lapsed.
Still, Julia Cardenas was getting ready for a job that she says hadn't paid her at all in weeks.
That Monday morning after the July Fourth holiday, she says her boss called to say not to bother coming into work. Her job was gone. And her employer, C4 Direct Solutions in Pompano Beach, had shut down.
Cardenas is one of at least a dozen former employees at the administrative outsourcing firm who say they were owed thousands of dollars in back pay or uncovered medical bills when the company folded.
They're part of a growing group of jobless who endure a more protracted form of misery in today's tough economy: lapsed health coverage, bounced paychecks, and finally, no pay at all.
U.S. Department of Labor spokesman Mike D'Aquino says the department doesn't collect data on the number of cases in which employees are owed wages. But, he says, such violations seem to be on the rise.
The department recently announced it would add 250 investigators nationwide over the next two years in an effort to step up enforcement.
Federal law affords employees strong protections to recover unpaid wages, and those who have sought legal counsel say they're optimistic about receiving back pay. But it becomes more difficult if a company declares bankruptcy or has no assets.
At a Fuddruckers in Wellington this spring, roughly 40 employees were stiffed on two weeks of pay after owners shuttered the franchise and prepared to file for bankruptcy. They told the Palm Beach Post that there was simply no money to pay — devastating news for workers like Charles Obee, a cook with a fiancee and son to support. Soon after his story appeared, the owners paid $12,000 in back wages.
But beyond putting pressure on an employer, workers can file suit. The Fair Labor Standards Act allows workers to sue for back pay to recover double the minimum wage for normal and overtime hours.
Miami labor attorney Kevin Mercer says for those who earn more than the minimum wage, the difference between minimum and promised wage can be recouped through a suit in state court. But he said the difference is often paid in the federal settlement to avoid further litigation.
Plaintiffs are also allowed to sue company owners to recover unpaid wages — a practice normally not allowed in civil cases. And the statute provides for "a reasonable attorney's fee" to be paid by employers found in violation.
Mercer, who has filed Fair Labor cases for four C4 Direct employees, says he has seen requests for representation in cases like this grow as the economy has weakened.
Former C4 Direct employees say the trouble began in February, when Friday paydays became Saturdays. Next, the funds dried up, checks began bouncing, and Monday mornings became a desperate race to the bank.
"On Monday, everyone would go to the Wachovia at 7:45 so they could be the first one to cash their check," said Gilberta Fergile. "It would maybe be five that could, and the rest would have to get their money during the week."
By June, the employees say, the checks had simply stopped coming. Several eventually quit, tired of toiling for no apparent compensation. Those who stuck around saw the Pompano Beach location close in early July.
C4 owner Ron Thibeau says his company fell prey to delinquent clients and bank fraud that drained company accounts. He says he is working to liquidate the company and has already paid some employees back, but he adds it will take weeks to meet obligations.
Thibeau says he is working with a lawyer to file bankruptcy and hopes to have everyone paid in a few months.
"The unfortunate thing is we are a sign of the times. I'm not the only company that is going through these things," Thibeau said. "I am still . . . doing everything I can to finalize all of the payrolls."
Four C4 managers set up their own call center firm, agreeing to take some of C4's equipment for payments owed, according to Thibeau.
Several C4 employees say they held on without pay because their prospects in the job market seemed so slim with the unemployment rate in Broward County at its highest in 17 years. Now jobless, most say they desperately need the earnings.
Employees can recover wages by filing a complaint with the Department of Labor. They run a toll-free helpline at 1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243).
Even with the strong employee protections that exist under the law, Mercer says that, paradoxically, the number of suits he has filed has dropped because many delinquent employers are in such dire financial condition that there is nothing to recover in court.