For Spaniards, Having a Job No Longer Guarantees a Paycheck

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Working but Waiting: The Times’s Suzanne Daley reports on struggling Spanish workers who have avoided losing their jobs but often face weeks or months without paychecks.

nytimes.com | Dec 16, 2012

By SUZANNE DALEY

VALENCIA, Spain — Over the past two years, Ana María Molina Cuevas, 36, has worked five shifts a week in a ceramics factory on the outskirts of this city, hand-rolling paint onto tiles. But at the end of the month, she often went unpaid.

 Still, she kept showing up, trying to keep her frustration under control. If she quit, she reasoned, she might never get her money. And besides, where was she going to find another job? Last month, she was down to about $130 in her bank account with a mortgage payment due.

“On the days you get paid,” she said at home with her disabled husband and young daughter, “it is like the sun has risen three times. It is a day of joy.”

Mrs. Molina, who is owed about $13,000 by the factory, is hardly alone. Being paid for the work you do is no longer something that can be counted on in Spain, as this country struggles through its fourth year of an economic crisis.

With the regional and municipal governments deeply in debt, even workers like bus drivers and health care attendants, dependent on government financing for their salaries, are not always paid.

But few workers in this situation believe they have any choice but to stick it out, and none wanted to name their employers, to protect both the companies and their jobs. They try to manage their lives with occasional checks and partial payments on random dates — never sure whether they will get what they are owed in the end. Spain’s unemployment rate is the highest in the euro zone at more than 25 percent, and despite the government’s labor reforms, the rate has continued to rise month after month.

“Before the crisis, a worker might let one month go by, and then move on to another job,” said José Francisco Perez, a lawyer who represents unpaid workers in the Valencia area. “Now that just isn’t an option. People now have nowhere to go, and they are scared. They are afraid even to complain.”

No one is keeping track of workers like Mrs. Molina. But one indication of their number can be seen in the courts, which have become jammed with people trying to get back pay from a government insurance fund, aimed at giving workers something when a company does not pay them.

In Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, the unemployment rate is 28.1 percent and the courts are so overwhelmed that processing claims, which used to take three to six months, now takes three to four years.

Since the start of the crisis in 2008, the insurance fund has paid nearly a million workers nationally back pay or severance. In 2007, it paid 70,000 workers. It is on track to pay more than 250,000 this year, and experts say the figures would be much higher if not for the logjam in the courts.

Often the unpaid workers, like Mrs. Molina, whose company is now in bankruptcy proceedings, hope their labor will keep a struggling operation afloat over the long run. Unemployment benefits last only two years, they point out, and they wonder what they would do after that. But in the meantime, they cannot even claim unemployment benefits. And no amount of budgeting can cover no payment at all.

Beatriz Morales García, 31, said she could not remember the last time she went shopping for herself. A few years ago, she and her husband, Daniel Chiva, 34, thought that they had settled into a comfortable life, he as a bus driver and she as a therapist in a rehabilitation center for people with mental disabilities. His job is financed by the City of Valencia, and hers by the regional government of Valencia.

They never expected any big money. But it seemed reasonable to expect a reliable salary, to take on a mortgage and think about children. In the past year, however, both of them have had trouble being paid. She is owed 6,000 euros, nearly $8,000. They have cut back on everything they can think of. They have given up their landline and their Internet connection. They no long park their car in a garage or pay for extra health insurance coverage. Mr. Chiva even forgoes the coffee he used to drink in a cafe before his night shifts. Still, the anxiety is constant.

“There are nights when we cannot sleep,” he said. “Moments when you talk out loud to yourself in the street. It has been terrible, terrible.”

Mrs. Morales said it was particularly hard to watch other mothers in the park with their children while she must leave her own toddler to go to work, unsure she will ever get paid.

“We are working eight hours, and we’re suffering more than people who are not working,” she said.

The couple’s pay has been so irregular that they are having a hard time even keeping track of how much they are owed, because small payments show up sporadically in their account.

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