In three years, James Woo racked up more than $200,000 in personal credit card debt while fronting the cost of flights, meals, hotels and trade show bookings for his employer, a CBD product company based in Escondido.
Then in 2020 the company abruptly fired him without paying him back, according to court documents. Woo filed a wage theft claim with the state and sued the company. With the help of an attorney, Woo settled for the full amount of the debt.
But today Woo says he hasn’t seen a nickel of the money he’s owed, and he’s only just paid off the debt himself.
“I was very depressed, very financially horrible. It sucked,” said Woo, who is now working for his family’s business in Mission Gorge. “That’s like a downpayment on a house.”
It could be years before he gets his money back.
That’s because, even with the help of an attorney, recovering stolen wages from an employer can be a painstaking, lengthy and sometimes impossible endeavor.
California workers claimed wage theft cost them a total of $320 million in 2017. Yet the California Labor Commissioner – the office charged with safeguarding workers’ rights across the state – generally does not track whether employers ever pay what they owe, unless an employer or employee reports back to the agency, and lacks strong enforcement mechanisms for payments.
Victims of wage theft – when an employer withholds wages, reimbursement or other compensation from an employee – can file a claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Department of Industrial Relations, or DIR.
After receiving a judgment, a court order based on a DIR decision in the employee’s favor that says how much the employer owes, the employee is often alone to actually enforce the payment.
DIR offers legal and investigative services to low-wage employees who qualify, but recommends that others who need help hire an attorney or a collections agency, or find a pro-bono or low cost attorney through a nonprofit.
Woo said the company fired him in March 2020. On top of that, Woo said the company also failed to pay his salary and initially misclassified him as an independent contractor.
Misclassification, when an employer improperly designates an employee an independent contractor, can be a form of wage theft. Employers misclassify employees for various reasons, including to save on payroll taxes, minimum wage, or overtime.
Woo sued his boss, CEO Marcos Agramont, and other executives of Isodiol International, the Escondido cannabis company. In the suit, he named Isodiol the company and ISO International, a limited liability corporation for which Agramont was also CEO. Woo said the two companies were indistinguishable.
Both entities lack active filing status with the California Secretary of State, according to records from the agency.
The website for Isodiol is live, but calls to the listed phone number did not go through. inewsource reached Agramont by phone in January, but he declined to comment and has since ignored additional requests for comment.
Tyler Buck, Woo’s employment law attorney, said the case was set for trial – until they realized the LLC and corporation “were broke.”
“They were running in the red every month. There were no insurance policies that would’ve triggered that would’ve paid in the event that we won a judgment at trial,” Buck said.
That forced Woo to settle for $250,000 through a judgment that gives him at least 10 years to collect the money. But until either company has assets to its name, Woo will have to keep waiting.
“It’s just a piece of paper until you actually find some sort of asset that is connected with the companies,” Buck said, referring to the judgment.
Woo is just one of several former employees who say they’re still trying to recover money from ISO International.
At least three other former employees have been awarded DIR judgments against ISO. One employee said his judgment was paid back.
ISO’s former in-house counsel, Coleman Alguire, filed a wage theft claim against the company near the end of 2020. After not being paid for three months, Alguire said he gave the company 30 days to pay his salary before he finally quit in December.
After a yearslong adjudication process, DIR found the company owed Alguire more than $50,000 – the largest DIR judgment in San Diego County in 2022.
But Alguire said he, too, has yet to see any payment from the company.
Story written by Sofia Mejias-Pascoe, a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area for inewsource. By agreement, The Grapevine publishes investigative, in-depth data-driven journalism from independent non-profit inewsource based at San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. For more from inewsource, visit http://inewsource.org/about/.
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