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Press Release

New Storytelling Project Highlights Impact of Wage Theft on Workers’ Lives

November 2, 2023

Luisa Montes
Communications Officer

November 2, 2023 – The James Irvine Foundation today released Wage Theft Stories, a multi-media project led by journalist Sarah Jackson that puts a human face on the challenge of wage theft. Jackson chronicles various ways workers across industries fall victim to wage theft and other labor violations, and their efforts to seek restitution, including through partnerships with community organizations and engagement with public agencies responsible for enforcement of labor law 

The release comes as attention to wage theft, cases where employees do not receive the full wages they are legally entitled to for their labor, is increasing. Nearly 19,000 California workers filed wage claims with state labor enforcement in 2021, with alleged claims totaling more than $338 million, according to news organization CalMatters. A report by the Economic Policy Institute in 2017 estimated that nearly 600,000 minimum-wage eligible workers in California are paid less than minimum wage, at cost of roughly $3,400 per worker and $2 billion annually. 

“Wage theft is far too embedded into the practices of many employers,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center and co-director of the California Coalition for Worker Power, a coalition advocating for stronger labor protections in the state. “Workers depend on their jobs, so speaking up when a paycheck is shorted often leads to swift retaliation. Employers know this and employees know this, so the problem has ballooned.” 

Jackson interviewed workers across several industries, including agriculture, car wash, janitorial, restaurant, transportation and warehousing. They highlight myriad issues that challenge their ability to earn living wages and sustain their families, including failure to pay for full work performed, not allowing access to paid sick days, or misclassifying them as independent contractors versus full-time employees. 

Many of the workers interviewed by Jackson have stepped up to defend their rights.  

“The fight itself is worth it because of the changes that I’ve been able to see at work, for myself and for future workers. My children and my grandchildren will be proud,” said Domingo Avalos, a truck driver who was denied benefits and filed a wage claim with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office to recover unpaid wages from his employer.  

The project is available at 

Sarah Jackson is a California-based journalist covering education, child welfare, and workforce development. Sarah works closely with leading academics, foundations and think tanks to get research into the hands of policymakers. A former newspaper reporter, Sarah holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a joint master’s degree in urban policy and planning, and child development from Tufts University. 

The James Irvine Foundation is a private, independent foundation that provided $187.3 million in grants in 2022 to organizations in California, with an endowment of $3.2 billion at the end of 2022. Since its founding in 1937, Irvine has made more than $2.4 billion in grants throughout the state. The Irvine Foundation has more than 85 employees in San Francisco and Los Angeles.