Maria Ortiz couldn't figure out how to feed her family when her paychecks stopped arriving on time from her employer. It turns out that the nonprofit had a history of paying workers late, even when the company had money. Photo by Joe Gallo.

Maria Ortiz held the crying newborn in her arms, rocking her back and forth to try to get her to sleep. But the baby wouldn’t quiet down; she was hungry.

Ortiz kept rocking, knowing there was no formula in the house to feed her granddaughter.
“I didn’t have any money,” she said, her voice trembling as her eyes filled with tears.

Ortiz should have had money. She worked full-time as a home health care aide for ASI, a nonprofit on Chicago’s North Side. But that day, as her first grandchild begged for food, Ortiz didn’t get her paycheck. She didn’t get one two weeks earlier, either. Or two weeks before that.

Ortiz and her co-workers at ASI have been getting late paychecks for the past two years. In some cases, management held lotteries to determine who got paid or made workers beg for their checks, employees said.

Management blames the delays on late payments from the state. But a Chicago Reporter investigation found that’s not necessarily the case.

The Reporter obtained the state’s payment records from the comptroller’s office and compared them to records kept by one ASI employee from October 2008 to November 2010 about when they received their checks. A letter reportedly sent to employees was posted on a blog that indicated that each payroll for the company’s 400-person workforce costs about $225,500.

The Reporter’s analysis found that ASI paid its workers late 75 percent of the time during the past two years for which the Reporter had data. Even when the state paid ASI enough money to make payroll, its workers still didn’t get their money on time 75 percent of the time.

ASI Executive Director Rebecca Cruz said the company only pays its workers late when the state doesn’t pay on time. She said the company is just now being reimbursed for invoices submitted four months ago.

“We are a not-for-profit,” Cruz said. “The majority of our clients are paid for by the state. We have to wait for the state to pay us.”

Cruz’s employees have tried to get help from the state itself. Illinois law says that financial hardship is not a valid basis for late payments, and employers must follow the payroll schedule it sets with employees.

Currently, the only recourse for workers is to file a claim with the Illinois Department of Labor. But Kassie Beyer, advocate for ASI’s employees at the Service Employees International Union, said the process is “slow and rarely effective.”

“Each missing check ends up being filed separately, and as soon as ASI pays up, the claim disappears,” Beyer said. “There is no penalty to the company,”

As of January, 12 complaints have been filed with the Illinois Department of Labor concerning ASI. All have been about late pay, with the majority resolved before the state had to intervene.

A new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, allows the state to fine companies that pay their workers late and also allows workers to collect interest on their late pay. But because workers often receive their late pay before the state has time to process their claim, it won’t likely have an effect, Beyer said.

But the problem is that people chronically receive late paychecks, not that they’re not getting paid at all. Rep. Harry Osterman said he tried to arrange for ASI to be put on an expedited payment system with the state. In addition, Adam Kader, a labor organizer for ARISE Chicago, said Osterman’s office arranged a conference call with ASI and the state, but Cruz didn’t participate.

Cruz denies that she was ever invited to such a meeting, and she said she would attend any meeting or conference call that would help her pay her employees. Osterman confirms that he has tried to help ASI employees get their paychecks on time.

Cruz said complaints about late pay are coming from a small minority of workers who are being pressured by SEIU and ARISE Chicago to unionize.

Late paychecks also have created divisions between employees, said Edna Jackson, who has worked for ASI for six years. Jackson said Cruz cut checks for employees that she knows.

“[Cruz is] picking and choosing who she wants to pay–”her favorites,” she said. “If she felt your situation was bad enough, she felt so sorry for you, she would give you your check.”
Cruz said she has never cut impromptu checks.

The uncertainty has caused some employees to find other work. Ortiz was fired from her job at ASI in late December. She said it was difficult to have her position taken away. She worries about her clients and is concerned about finding another job in the current economy. But she couldn’t take the stress of never knowing if she was going to receive a paycheck.

“It was too much,” Ortiz said. “I work, and I should get paid. If they won’t pay me, I can’t work there.”