Activists: Wage Theft Remains Rampant Despite Prevention Laws

Members of several community organizations and workers demand more funds to prevent wage theft and recover stolen wages in the state. (Photo by José Martínez via El Diario)

In 2012, for more than six months, Alfredo Alegría would kiss his wife and kids goodbye very early in the morning. His workdays had a start time but not an end time. He says that lack of knowledge about labor laws and fear of losing his job in construction kept him from talking to his superiors.

Only one week before finishing his contract, Alegría received a notification in which his employer asked him to work for four more weeks. In spite of the fatigue, he accepted; a fateful decision he now regrets. Six years later, the Mexican worker is still owed stolen wages (…).

Mexican immigrant Alfredo Alegría, a victim of wage theft. (Photo by José Martínez via El Diario)

Alegría, who moved 36 years ago from Mexico City and now spends part of his time as a community leader at Make the Road NY Brooklyn, was one of the speakers this Tuesday at a press conference in front of the State Assembly offices in Manhattan, minutes before the start of a hearing analyzing the effects of the Wage Theft Prevention Act (WTPA).

“We are here to demand more funding for the [New York State] Department of Labor, because there are lots of cases like ours in which employers stop paying wages and keep beating about the bush. They change addresses and then they say that the owner resigned,” added the worker.

The Alegría case is just one example among many, in spite of the fact that the 2010 law, which [took effect in 2011 and] was amended in 2014, created protections that are considered among the strongest in the country (…). Activists and workers say that the Department of Labor’s lack of funds and new tricks used by employers, like forced arbitration agreements, are undermining state efforts to enforce wage theft laws.

“In the past two and a half years we have assisted thousands of nail salon workers of different ethnicities in getting nail technician licenses, and also file complaints with the Department of Labor,” said Luis Gómez, organizing director of the Workers United, NY-NJ Regional Joint Board. “I have met victims of harassment, discrimination, inhuman work conditions, but the biggest, most persistent problem continues to be rampant wage theft in the nail salon industry.” (…)

“When New Yorkers are being stolen almost one billon in wages, it is time to act (…),” added Héctor Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU.

The WTPA, which requires employers to give written notice of wage rates to each new hire, took effect on April 9, 2011. However, according to the State Assembly, it is estimated that more than $15 billon in wages are stolen by employers around the country every year. (…)

According to Richard Blum, a member of The Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Unit, construction workers are the most affected.

“While our clients are being sent to jail for stupid things, those companies are stealing millions and millions to those employees, but even so it is perceived as something not dangerous, or as a private matter that should be resolved inside the company,” said Blum. “This cannot keep going on.”

(…)

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