Campaign Seeks to Convince Fearful Immigrants to Claim $2.5M in Stolen Wages

New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer announcing a new campaign to return stolen wages, with
Consul General of Ecuador Linda Machuca (in red patterned dress) at left. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Citing an anti-immigrant climate at the national level, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer launched this Thursday a campaign to return over $2.5 million in recovered wages that had been stolen by contractors of city-funded projects, mostly to Hispanic construction workers.

The public official announced the initiative along with Consul General of Ecuador Linda Machuca and other representatives of community organizations. (…)

“The hateful, anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of Washington has created a climate of fear, leaving employees too afraid to hold employers accountable when they withhold their pay,” said Stringer.

Stringer added that “while we can’t control the White House,” his office has the power to fight to protect New York workers. “This campaign is our way of making sure that regardless of who you are or your immigration status, if you did the work for a city contractor, you’ll get the pay you deserve.”

The problem of wage theft in New York is not new. According to the Comptroller’s Office, since 2014 more than $27 million in prevailing wage violations have been assessed, and more than $12 million have been returned to employees who were cheated out of their wages. The office also debarred 50 contractors “who took advantage of workers.”

It’s a critical situation for the immigrant community, said Machuca, who in late 2018, working with the Comptroller’s Office, contacted an Ecuadorean worker who received a $40,000 check in lost wages.

The man, who returned to his native country five years ago, worked for more than four years for a city contractor but thought that, because he was undocumented and did not speak English, he did not have the right to reclaim the money his employer owed him.

“Immigrant workers must know that, regardless of their immigration status, there is a mechanism in place to recover the wages that dishonest city contractors failed to pay them,” said Machuca, who recently was named president of the Coalition of Latin American Consuls in New York. “Those in the Coalition are pleased to know that the Comptroller’s Office is promoting workers’ rights and making justice happen.”

Part of the reason the comptroller thinks there is an “urgent need” for the campaign – which will be divulged through community media and organizations – is that workers are not heeding the agency’s calls to show up and claim their lost wages.

Fear and lack of trust in the authorities have led 1,266 city workers to ignore letters informing them that their money has been recovered.

According to the Comptroller’s Office, in Queens alone there are 243 workers who could claim more than $550,000 in stolen wages. In the Bronx, 201 workers could claim $320,000. In Brooklyn, 251 workers could claim $438,000. In Manhattan, 66 workers could claim more than $66,000. On Staten Island, 25 workers could claim more than $12,000.

Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, said that “the fear in those communities is real.” Especially, she stressed, “at a time when President Trump is emboldening exploitative employers with hateful rhetoric.” (…)

One of the workers who have recovered stolen wages is ‘María,’ a Colombian woman who preferred not to reveal her real name.

In December 2018, the 46-year-old immigrant who labored for years as a cleaning worker in Queens, got a $22,000 check thanks to the office’s efforts, after months of sending her letters to which she did not respond. The contact was finally made by her daughter, who, because she is a U.S. citizen, acquiesced to go to Comptroller’s Office in the name of her mother.

“People are afraid to come here because they think they are going to get in trouble (…),” said Josiel Estrella, the comptroller’s press secretary. “The idea is that there are several ways in which they can communicate with us: It can be through organizations, or even calling media outlets directly.”

(…)

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