Coming together at the seams: A story of wage theft and organizing from Labor Notes 2022

What Elsa Gutierrez Garcia’s story taught us about wage theft, organizing, and feeling important at Labor Notes 2022

Is it possible we’re still beaming and buzzing from Labor Notes 2022? While it’s been two months since 4,000 of us gathered in Chicago, here at Frank, we’ve been reflecting on everything we learned and building new friendships with folks we met.

So many others have written eloquently about how special the event was, but we want to spotlight our MVP of the weekend, seamstress Elsa Gutierrez Garcia. Her story deserves to be shared and we are proud to amplify it, as well as the critical work of our friends at Arise Chicago.

First, a little backstory: My Frank colleagues and I purchased tickets for the canceled 2020 conference and had been waiting for what felt like forever for 2022 to come around. In the months leading up to the conference, we had an idea to pay homage to the legacy of garment workers in the Windy City: have a seamstress sew on union patches live at our booth.

We reached out to Chicago-area labor organizations looking for a seamstress, and Arise Chicago introduced us to Elsa, a worker they were helping with a wage theft case.

We had the pleasure of working alongside Elsa for the three days of the conference. We got to know her, learned more about her life and experiences, and saw her skill firsthand as she sewed patches for hundreds of Labor Notes attendees. We also learned more about the wage theft she and her coworkers experienced and how they’re fighting back with the help of Arise Chicago.

Before we hear from Elsa, here’s what you should know about wage theft. Wage theft occurs when an employer doesn’t pay you what you’re owed for the hours you’ve worked. Low-wage workers are disproportionately the victims of wage theft, as are vulnerable workers like immigrants. In Chicago, wage theft is estimated to cost workers over $1 million a day and nationally, the estimated amount of recovered stolen wages is three times that of all other forms of property theft combined.

What follows is Elsa’s story, as told to us in her own words.

In March 2020, Elsa heard about a job opportunity from a woman at her church. The opportunity seemed too good to be true to Elsa: sewing masks from home for $15 per hour, 48 hours a week. She was thrilled about the chance to support her family, be able to stay home with her kids while working, and contribute to the badly needed PPE for the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

Elsa started the job sewing and assembling masks in late April. The workers primarily dealt with Victor Santana, who assigned them work and handled their pay. The job seemed so great, Elsa’s sister Erika even started as a mask seamstress a week later. For the first two weeks, Elsa was paid on time and everything seemed as promised.

While COVID-19 was spreading rapidly across the globe, Elsa and Erika’s family back in Mexico needed support. They received word that their brother, Gustavo, had fallen ill. Elsa found out about Gustavo’s illness not long after starting her new job and was immediately grateful for the extra income to send back to Mexico to help him get better. Elsa planned to throw herself into her work, wanting to work as many hours as possible to support Gustavo through his illness.

That day, Erika came over to Elsa’s house and asked why she was still sewing. Elsa said it was important to keep working to support Gustavo. Erika looked at her sister and told her that, after 10 hours in the hospital, Gustavo had passed away from a brain hemorrhage.

Elsa and Erika called to notify the company of Gustavo’s death and take some hours off. The lead worker said she was sorry, but they had a quota of masks to meet in order to keep the boss happy. Elsa remembers sewing those masks through her tears, but consoled herself thinking that the income would help cover Gustavo’s funeral costs.

Around this same time, Elsa and the other workers stopped receiving payment for their work. When they asked about it, Victor Santana gave them nothing but excuses: the ATM had a withdrawal limit, the bank lines were too long. After a while, workers were told that the boss was using their wages to buy more fabric to keep production going — but not to worry, he was keeping track of how much they were owed.

Months passed with no wages and new excuses. Elsa and her coworkers sewed throughout May, June, and July, a total of more than 3 months without being paid. By the end of September, the workers decided to stop working, as there’d been no progress on receiving their wages. Around the same time, Elsa and Erika’s family suffered a second tremendous loss. Their older brother, Antonio, passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Amidst their grief and the economic stress their entire family was facing, the group of workers contacted Arise Chicago for help.

Initially, Arise organized the workers to take action against the company by marching on the boss. After the boss sent a cease and desist letter, Arise connected the workers with Raise the Floor file a lawsuit on behalf of the 15 workers.

And that brings us back to Labor Notes. When we reached out to Elsa, she’d been dealing with the loss of two beloved brothers and hundreds of hours of lost wages. She was understandably skeptical about a casual gig, but since the offer came through Arise Chicago, she took a chance on us. And we’re so glad she did!

If you had a #UNIONIZE patch sewn on your jean jacket or a solidarity fist added to your backpack during Labor Notes 2022, it was thanks to Elsa’s skills and talent. She was the heart of our booth at Labor Notes: her sewing created so many opportunities for conversation and connection, and it sparked countless new relationships, not just for the Frank team, but for anyone waiting in line or gathered around.

For Elsa, Labor Notes was a new and exciting experience. She told us about how she grew up on a ranch in rural Mexico and being at a conference was such a different environment for her. She said it was eye-opening to learn that there are many organizations similar to Arise, fighting for workers like her. Afterwards, she said, “It felt really nice when people asked to take a picture or video of me sewing. I felt like a movie star. I felt important.”

From our perspective at Frank, feeling that her work is important and that she is important is something Elsa — and all workers — should experience in the workplace every day. Our company was founded to help workers like Elsa have a voice in the workplace through digital organizing software. So while a software company sewing patches might seem like an odd choice, it gave us a chance to meet Elsa and share her story. After all, that’s how all good organizing starts: a worker shares their story.

If you would like to know more about the mask scam lawsuit currently underway, please contact Arise Chicago. If you are interested in learning more about the Labor Notes conference, please contact Labor Notes.

We’d like to extend special thanks to Elsa Gutierrez Garcia, Laura Garza, Arise Chicago, Adrian Montgomery, and the entire team at Labor Notes.

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