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Software Engineering

This app is helping workers reclaim millions in lost wages

The tool launched last October with beta testing in New York that focused on the construction industry, a sector identified as particularly rife with abuse, and helped recover $1 million in lost wages—more than double what it cost to build. In mid-May, it was expanded in a bid to give workers in businesses from manufacturing to housecleaning more leverage with their employers.

“By building an independent, nonprofit, digital legal tool for advocates to share and use together, we’re really leveling the playing field for folks that are typically used to technology being used against them,” Camarena says.

Wage theft—in which employers skimp on overtime or regular pay, and sometimes simply fail to pay at all—costs US workers approximately $50 billion annually, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Overburdened government attorneys often fail to prosecute it. A significant amount of this theft targets immigrants, both legal and undocumented, in part because of communication barriers and their perceived lack of power or legal recourse. Reclamo doesn’t collect immigration information, because it’s irrelevant for its purposes: both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and laws in many states say that undocumented immigrants, who make up a substantial portion of the affected population, can claim the same protections as any other worker. 

The precarious situation these workers face is not just coincidental, says Michelle Franco, an Ohio State professor with Mexican roots who studies issues of race and class in landscape architecture, a business that relies heavily on immigrant labor. “The actual profits and the functionality of these industries is completely dependent on that precarity,” she says.

Reclamo evolved out of frustrations over the treatment of immigrants during the Trump administration. Justicia staff couldn’t create tech to change federal laws, but after coming across articles on wage theft in 2017, they realized there were other ways to help. Rounds of user testing, interviews with community justice organizers and workers, and other research helped shape the app’s form and function. Workers access the web app at a resource center or with a community organizer, so there’s someone to help with follow-up and offer additional legal guidance. The final results of the process include both a legal claim and a letter to send employers, which has been found to be the fastest way to recover money.

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