Workers alleging wage theft face months-long wait for TWC investigations

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When we showed up to interview Tony Delgadillo last month, he came armed with hundreds of documents he claimed shows he was shorted $17,000 in work he performed at a body shop in Georgetown. Those records were what he called “production sheets” showing the time it should have taken him to finish repair jobs on dozens of cars. 

“These are all the cars: 1, 2…” Delgadillo said as he counted the stack.

“Look at this. I got more — maybe 100 cars, maybe less, I don’t know,” Delgadillo said.

Delgadillo was paid commission. The faster he finished a job, the more money he was supposed to earn. It’s a standard way many mechanics are paid in which efficiency ratings allow the mechanic to earn more money per task. 

Tony Delgadillo worked at a Georgetown body shop from March until the end of August 2020. He claims he’s owed another $17,000 in commission payments. His former employer told KXAN Delgadillo was paid in full for all commissions. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Delgadillo estimates he wasn’t paid $17,000 in commission from work he performed at Georgetown Collision between March and the end of August in 2020.

“Yeah, I got a check, but not all the money,” Delgadillo told KXAN. “I’m working like three weeks and the second week I asked for my money and the next day they fire me,” Delgadillo said. 

“Mr. Delgadillo was paid in full for all commissions,” Scott Starkes wrote to KXAN in an Oct. 13 email disputing Delgadillo’s claims. Starkes was co-owner of the body shop until selling the business last month, he said. Starkes included an accounting ledger showing $55,805 paid to Delgadillo in 26 different checks between March and September. 

“Mr. Delgadillo does not receive 100% of commission as other staff members also get a portion of the allocation of labor,” Starkes wrote. 

Delgadillo filed a wage claim with the Texas Workforce Commission alleging he’s owed the $17,000 in commission. TWC investigators will hear from both sides and the state will issue its decision after that investigation.

Fernando Cruz reported the same employer to TWC, claiming he never got paid for his final week of work, and that one of his paychecks from Georgetown Collision bounced.

Fernando Cruz shows the bank statement showing his August 20 paycheck marked as “Frozen/Blocked Account” by his bank. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“Frozen, blocked account,” was the message Cruz’s bank printed on the check. It took his employer nearly another week to make that check good, Cruz told KXAN. Cruz said he worked the following week, then decided to quit. 

“It hurt very much,” Cruz said in an interview with KXAN last month. “It was a couple of bills I couldn’t pay, part of the rent. I had to ask for the rent extension; make do with what I could.”

“I put in the work and I expected to get this money and still waiting for it,” Cruz said. 

After getting no response from his employer, Cruz said he researched how to file a wage claim with the Texas Workforce Commission. 

The TWC responded in a letter dated Sept. 8, 2020, telling Cruz the agency’s Labor Law Department opened an investigation into his allegations of unpaid wages. The letter stated it could take the TWC up to four months to finish the “investigation process.” 

The agency’s spokesman told KXAN the four months is a “worst-case scenario” and that 39-55 days to complete a wage claim investigation is the “current average.”

TWC help ‘months away’

In 2019, the Texas Workforce Commission processed 11,779 wage claims from across Texas, according to data provided by the agency. So far in 2020, the TWC reported 10,794 wage claims filed.

By comparison, the TWC fielded 13,074 claims in 2018.

The agency currently has 60 investigators working in the Regulatory and Integrity Division, according to Serna, looking into allegations of stolen wages, unemployment fraud and unemployment overpayments. 

Those 60 investigators are handling thousands of cases each year. Serna acknowledged in an interview with KXAN that the agency can’t keep up with the demands right now. 

Fernando Cruz is demanding a final weeks’ pay from a body shop in Georgetown. This letter from the TWC shows it may take up to four months to finish the investigation. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“We are looking at increasing our investigators,” Serna said. The agency is currently negotiating with two contracting firms to bring in hired investigators to help the TWC process wage claims. 

“I had a conversation with our division director earlier about increasing staff: ‘Let’s hire more than what we need, work the backlog down and we can always let those contractors go as we manage the contract, as we manage the workload,’” Serna said. 

The TWC expects to have a contract for more investigators by the close of business Oct. 16, according to Serna, but he did not have an answer as to the number of investigators the agency would add to its force.

Wage claim investigations typically take between three and four months to complete, according to TWC records. But, if an investigative decision is contested, the claim then moves into the agency’s already backlogged appeals division. 

There are two levels of appeals: the Appeal Tribunal and the Commission Appeal. The tribunal is the initial step and decisions there can be appealed to the TWC’s three-member commission. If a Commission Appeal is contested, the contesting party can file for a hearing in district court.

KXAN’s analysis of wage claims filed in 2019 shows Tribunal Appeals took 80 days on average for a decision. Commission Appeals took an average of 240 days for decisions in 2019. 

“The thing with the wage claim is, they worked very hard for that money and for some reason didn’t receive those funds and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Serna told KXAN.

TWC investigations will try to sort out whether the Delgadillo and Cruz claims against their former employer have merit.

It was a colossal mistake and screw up’

Starkes does not dispute that Cruz’s August 20 paycheck bounced. He said “15 to 20” other employees’ paychecks also bounced that week due to a clerical error.

“It was a colossal mistake and screw up,” Starkes said in an Oct. 5 phone call with KXAN investigator Jody Barr, adding that ultimately “We paid everybody.”

Starkes also included an explanation as to why Cruz was not paid for his final week of work. 

“He was not paid a final check because he ordered parts for his personal vehicle from my vendor and used my credit account without authorization. He took the parts with him when he left, so I am owed for those parts,” Starkes said. 

Cruz disputes Starkes’ claims and said he had no idea he was being accused of theft until Starkes’ Oct. 13 email to KXAN. 

Starkes’ lawyer emailed KXAN a statement just before publication of this article.

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