Making Wage Theft Punishable by Imprisonment

Wage theft victim Raúl Alarcón with Assembly Member Catalina Cruz and Manuel Castro, from NICE (Photo by Edwin Martinez via El Diario)

Although federal, state and city laws clearly assert that any person doing a job has a right to economic compensation regardless of their immigration status, wage theft keeps growing in New York. There have been more than 150,000 cases reported in the past few years, in what labor advocates and activists have dubbed and epidemic.

(…) “We need a more powerful remedy to teach contractors a lesson so they stop playing with the people’s hunger,” said day laborer Armando Valderrama, who was owed more than $2,000 by a Brooklyn contractor.

The Wage Theft Prevention Act (WTPA), which requires employers to give a written wage rate notice to every new employee and entered into force on April 9, 2011, has not been enough. [Editor’s note: According to some estimates, annual wage theft nationwide may total $15 billion.]

In response to the urgent need to stop wage theft, state assembly member Catalina Cruz, whose own mother was a victim of that offence when she was undocumented, recently introduced a bill in the Albany legislature that would put employers who steal wages in prison.

“This bill seeks to criminalize wage theft by including it in the Penal Code in the theft category and making it punishable with imprisonment, because what we are seeing now is that when an employer stops paying, the worker’s only resource is to file a report in the State’s Department of Labor. This process takes between six months and one year, and by the time damages are sought, the employer has disappeared and the worker loses their money,” said the Colombian politician from Corona, a neighborhood where this kind of theft is persistent.

“Many companies are using wage theft as part of their business plan to generate income. They take advantage of the poor’s necessity and when it’s time to pay they play dumb. They are not paying our people and we are not going to allow that,” added the representative. She pointed out that some district attorney’s offices, such as Manhattan’s, have tried to prosecute wage theft offenders but, as that’s not codified as a crime in the law books, they need to look at other similar crimes.

(…) “This bill would create a new crime, under the designation of theft, and once the law is passed, wage theft would be punishable by prison and economic penalties, because nothing is more painful than losing your freedom,” said Cruz, explaining that the penalties will depend on the amount stolen and the schemes realized by employers. “We will also promote a plan, hand in hand with community organizations, to educate our people and show them that if their wages are stolen they have the option to recover them,” added the legislator, who hopes the bill will be approved before the end of the current legislative session. The initiative is also being promoted in the State Senate by legislator Neil Breslin (…).

Raúl Alarcón, who said he is owed $3,300 by a bad employer, said he hopes that Cruz and Breslin’ bill will “put an end to the theft game” of many contractors.

(…) “I was hired for a construction job and the deal was that I would get a $600 weekly wage but [my boss] Néstor started to fall behind in his payments and changed the payment system. He then started making incomplete payments, and then he made us go from one place to the other on Roosevelt Ave., to look for him to get our money. We would get to one place and they would tell us that that he had left and that we had to go somewhere else, that was one of his tricks to keep delaying payment,” said the Colombian worker.

(…) “Employers are doing this in a systematic fashion,” said Manuel Castro, executive director of workers rights’ organization NICE. “In the past twelve months we have seen in our area more than 500 cases reported by our members. We know that contractors decided to exploit people this way because they know that the Department of Labor often does not investigate small cases, but we are talking of almost $100,000 if you put all of those cases together.”

The activist urged Albany to pass the law penalizing wage theft. “This bill not only sends the message that you cannot play with workers anymore, it also give us community organizations more tools to help and put pressure.”

(…) Mexican immigrant Julio Vargas, who works mostly with cleaning services contractors, called on the state Legislature to green light the proposal.

“Many of us don’t understand much of those things and that’s why they take advantage of us, but if politicians really want to help, they need to pass this bill quickly so contractors stop duping us, because only one unpaid check can make us go hungry,” said Vargas, who claims to have been victim of three unscrupulous contractors. “Rent does not wait for you, nor does food, or children school tuition. Meanwhile, they are getting rich off our work as if we were slaves. I hope those scoundrels end up in jail.”


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