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This App Helps Immigrants Reclaim Their Stolen Wages

Wage theft costs American workers approximately $50 billion each year, and low-wage, immigrant workers are more than twice as likely to have their wages stolen than those born in the U.S. Reclamo helps advocates in New York navigate the process of reporting stolen wages with immigrant workers.
The ideation board from the team that created Reclamo, with arrows pointing to "recovered wage $$$."

A board of ideas by the team that created Reclamo, an app helping immigrants reclaim stolen wages, from their design meetings. (Image courtesy of Pro Bono Net)

In the United States, wage theft is the crime of the century. Every year, American workers lose approximately $50 billion in wages stolen by their employers, according to the most recent data available from the Economic Policy Institute. 

Wage theft occurs when employees are not paid the wage they agreed to, are not paid for all the hours they worked, don’t receive overtime compensation, or receive illegal deductions to their pay.  

This national epidemic is most prevalent in America’s biggest cities. Each year, an estimated 2.1 million New Yorkers lose a cumulative $3.2 billion to wage theft, according to a report by the Center For Popular Democracy. The bulk of those workers live in New York City. These numbers depict the ubiquity of the issue in America, and the risk is even higher for immigrant workers. In New York City, low-income laborers who were born in other countries are more than twice as likely to experience wage theft than those born in the U.S.

While wage theft is a universal problem, it is not universally felt. Immigrant workers are more vulnerable to wage theft for a multitude of reasons. The barriers for an average low-wage worker seeking to reclaim stolen wages include a lack of knowledge of state wage and hour rules, flawed complaint processes, and lack of access to legal counseling. Immigrants who had their wages stolen must navigate these obstacles while contending with potential language barriers, complicated paperwork, and the fear of employer retaliation. Even when stolen wages are reclaimed, workers only receive a small portion of what they are owed. 

The app that’s helping reclaim stolen wages

Rodrigo Camarena first learned that wage theft was a big problem for immigrants in late 2019 while reading a Spanish-language newspaper. Camarena is the director of the Justicia Lab at Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit focused on expanding access to legal aid to vulnerable populations in America, including immigrants and people facing poverty. The Justicia Lab develops digital tools that help immigrants navigate citizenship, taxes, aid eligibility and more.

Camarena read the story of a low-wage immigrant worker who had his wages stolen, and the employer harassment he was subjected to when he sought to reclaim what he rightfully earned. Unlike with housing or employment, Camarena couldn’t think of any nonprofits dedicated to helping immigrants reclaim stolen wages.

So, the Justicia Lab partnered with policy work centers like Make The Road to develop a digital tool to provide a unique answer to this problem. The resulting app, Reclamo, launched in October 2022 and has already helped hundreds of immigrants reclaim their stolen wages. It guides legal and non-legal advocates at work centers as they navigate the process of reporting stolen wages with immigrant laborers.

“We’re trying to help the helpers here, who are doing amazing work in all of our communities,” Camarena said. “They’re very resource-strapped, and we believe that technology can be a force multiplier and can help.”

Rodrigo Camarena.
Rodrigo Camarena directs the Justicia Lab at Pro Bono Net, which develops digital tools that help immigrants navigate citizenship, taxes, aid eligibility and more. (Image courtesy of Pro Bono Net)

Similar apps were created in the past to help immigrants with issues like tallying labor hours, but Reclamo is the first digital tool created by a nonprofit advocacy group for the express purpose of screening and filing wage theft complaints from low-wage immigrant workers.

The tool is designed to address multiple barriers presented by stolen wages. A wage theft calculator helps determine just how much pay an employer has stolen. A legal center streamlines the complaint-filing process and advises advocates. And data collection and analysis help to identify larger-scale wage theft patterns to help influence labor organizing and systemic reform. 

On top of that, the app is full of educational material relevant to both immigrant workers and their non-legal advocates. Many wage theft victims are not even aware that they are victims, and others are not aware of the extent to which they have been robbed, Camarena said. So, Reclamo doesn’t just help determine if wages were stolen, but it’s also fundamental in determining how much was stolen.

The current impact and future focus

Reclamo had a near-instant impact when it was rolled out in October 2022, and has grown ever since. When New York City’s immigrant population began to soar last summer, many immigration nonprofits were stretched thin trying to address their needs for things like shelter, food aid, employment, healthcare and schooling. Being an app, Reclamo didn’t experience that same stress when serving more people. 

While reclaiming stolen wages may not initially seem as essential as finding food or housing, the app has helped hundreds of people file claims, collectively amounting to more than $1.5 million in stolen wages. 

The team behind Reclamo in a design meeting when they were developing the Reclamo app to fight wage theft
The Justicia Lab partnered with policy work centers like Make The Road to create Reclamo. The team is pictured here in one of their initial co-design meetings.  (Image courtesy of Pro Bono Net)

Besides the obvious demand for the app, the financial support of partner organizations has been fundamental for Reclamo, Camarena said.

“We’re always trying to grow the app’s popularity and awareness amongst work centers and workers themselves,” Camarena said.

Funding from the government isn’t easy to come by for Justicia Lab, but Camarena and his co-workers are optimistic about receiving more government assistance in the future. 

For the moment, Reclamo is only available in New York state, but Pro Bono Net has greater aspirations for the app. “We are excited to bring powerful digital tools to people who are already doing really impactful work throughout the country,” Camarena said. 

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Patrick is a freelance journalist who writes what the robots can't. Based in Syracuse, New York, Patrick seeks to uplift, inform, and inspire readers with stories centered on environmental activism, social justice, and arts and music. He enjoys collecting books and records, writing prose and poetry, and playing guitar.

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