By Paige Tortorelli

CHICAGO (CBS)– Hairstylist Shundell Vance spent five years snipping off dead ends and deep conditioning hair at an Illinois salon. She eventually decided to become a business owner and open a salon herself.

Vance finished her last week at her old salon, and when payday arrived, she patiently waited for her check. Five years have passed since then, and she is still waiting for her former employer to pay up.

Although her last paycheck was only for a few hundred dollars Vance says it’s about the principle, not the money.

“Who do you think you are not paying someone for the work that they have done,” Vance said. “That’s not right.”

Attempts to ask her former employer for the unpaid money failed, so Vance turned to the state for help. She filed a wage claim with the Illinois Department of Labor, which is the best recourse for workers hoping to recover unpaid money.

In 80 percent of cases employers will pay their employee once the department notifies them about the claim. Twenty percent of the time, however, the employer will dispute the claim and a hearing will take place.

Vance’s claim was among the minority that went to hearing.

The judge overseeing the case reviewed both sides’ evidence and ruled in Vance’s favor. She thought she would finally receive her paycheck – but collecting her money proved more difficult than winning her case.

After a hearing, the department notifies both parties about the decision. If the employer loses, he or she then has 35 days to send the payment or petition the ruling. Once 35 days have passed, the Department of Labor forwards the case to the Attorney General’s office to enforce payment.

If the employer is still in business, the Attorney General can attach liens or garnish their wages to ensure the employee gets paid.

RELATED: 458 Workers Won Wage Claims In Illinois In Past 2 Years; 75% Still Haven’t Been Paid What They’re Owed

Vance’s former employer petitioned the decision within the 35 day period, but her appeal was denied. Vance never received payment after the petition was dismissed, so her case should have been forwarded to the Attorney General’s office. But the Department of Labor never filed the proper paperwork to forward her case to them.

“It makes me feel like it’s a joke,” Vance said. “It makes me feel like everything I did was for nothing.”

Her case is not uncommon. Since the beginning of 2018, 75 percent of people who have won a wage claim have not seen a penny. Add all those unpaid wages up and Illinois workers are collectively waiting to receive more than two million dollars.

One worker has been waiting for $19,714.14 since May 2018. Another claimant has not been seen the $67,176 they won in September 2018. One person has had a $103,206.19 check at stake since June 2019.

The amount each claimant waits varies, but on average each person is owed upward of $6,000.

Search unpaid wage claims from 2018 to 2019: 

Vance said her claim fell on deaf ears. She made numerous calls to the department, but to no avail.

“They just kept giving me the run-around,” she said.

Marina Faz-Huppert, the director of Fair Labor Standards, oversees the wage claim process, but could not explain this million-dollar backlog. She instead deferred questions about this disparity to her communications director.

 

Her colleague later explained the challenges in collecting money from employers. For instance, if an employer moves to a state that has no reciprocity agreement with Illinois, the department loses its ability to enforce the hearing. Employers can also declare bankruptcy, which makes the cheated employee one person in a long line of creditors.

The 400-plus employees with unpaid wage claims are not the only losers in this scenario. Taxpayers suffer too – their money funds a broken system.

“This is a service to the people,” Vance said. “They’re there for a reason. We’re paying them.”

In 2019, almost nine million taxpayer dollars funded a department that pays five wage claim specialists and seven compliance officers to resolve these cases. Yet millions of dollars have still not been secured.

“We’re reviewing all of our enforcement and tools,” Faz-Huppert said.

When it comes to obtaining their own money, the state has even less success.

Every wage claim that goes through the hearing process has at least a $250 administrative fee that the losing party pays. In the last two years, the department failed to collect more than $150,000 of these fees.

On their website, the Department of Labor clearly outlines penalties for employees that fail to submit wage claim payments on time. After the 35 day grace period has elapsed, employers are supposed to pay a one percent per day late fee.

The Attorney General’s office, which is responsible for collecting late fees, said they are only able to recover half of them.

One percent may not sound like a substantial amount – but many of these cases have not been resolved for months, so the numbers add up fast. The claimant owed $103,206 should now receive an additional $180,000 in penalty fees.

As a former union leader, Faz-Huppert wants to improve the current system.

“It absolutely impacts me when I see an elderly person or someone who works at a 12 hours shift come to our office with a claim,” she said.

She admits the current system has flaws and improvements need to take place.

“We have our work cut out for us,” she said.

As a result, she and her team enacted new initiatives to improve the wage claims process.

They will hire two new administrative law judges to eliminate delays in getting a wage claim hearing.

The department also created a wage claim mediation pilot program that will help employees and employers reach an agreement before they go to hearing.

Of course, this program will not impact the status of cases like Vance’s which seem stuck in bureaucratic limbo.