CHICAGO — Fabian Gutierrez logged more than 60 hours a week slicing meat and stocking shelves at a neighborhood grocery for less than minimum wage, with no overtime.
The 32-year-old Mexican immigrant said he put up with it for months because he was desperate to support his wife and young daughter. And like many of his co-workers, he was afraid to challenge his boss.
"All of us took abuse. We were disrespected," said Gutierrez, who found help at a workers' rights center, joined with other workers to sue the owner of La Fruteria and now works at another grocery store that he says treats him better.
Across the nation, the long-simmering problem of employers who don't pay their workers properly appears to be getting worse, especially for immigrant laborers.
In the absence of aggressive federal action, some states and local governments have begun to tackle the issue on their own.
They say employers who don't pay overtime or the minimum wage are unlikely to pay into state workers' compensation or unemployment insurance funds — bilking taxpayers even as they're cheating workers.
Workers' rights centers say wage theft has become the No. 1 complaint they've heard in recent months.
In Chicago, Working Hands Legal Clinic, which is helping Gutierrez, received 161 complaints of wage theft from January through June 2008. That jumped by more than 50 percent to 252 complaints during the same period this year.
The Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network says that at least 50 percent of day laborers — there are 120,000 on a given day in the United States — experience some form of wage theft.
About 68 percent of low-wage workers reported wage theft in 2008, regardless of citizenship status, according to a study released this year that surveyed 4,400 low-wage workers in major U.S. cities, the first such extensive review in years.
Low-wage immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable because most are paid in cash, making record-keeping difficult. Many fear a call to immigration authorities, even if they have legal status to work in the United States.
Some states are looking for creative solutions to the wage theft problem.
California and New York created multiagency task forces that raid problem industries, such as carwashes and grocery stores, and focus on regions where workers repeatedly report violations.
"Having everyone go out together shows a very powerful message that you can't just pay the piper and keep going," said Terri Gerstein, New York's deputy labor commissioner for wage and immigrant services.
A recent congressional report slammed the Labor Department for frequently failing to investigate or even register some wage complaints.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has added about 250 wage and hour inspectors, and last week the department signed an agreement with the New York labor department, the Mexican Consulate and several other groups to create a call center that will provide Hispanic workers in the New York area information about their labor rights.