HVJC and Westchester Labor Alliance Partner to Fight Wage Theft

HVJC Staff meet with a Yonkers-based worker center program of Catholic Charities of Archdiocese of New York.

Hudson Valley Justice Center is proud to partner with Westchester Labor Alliance (Alianza Laboral), a network of five community-based, non-profit organizations serving the low-wage, immigrant worker population throughout Westchester County.  Since 2012, the Alliance has engaged with thousands of workers affected by widespread wage theft and labor abuses, not only assisting individual workers to obtain their earned but unpaid wages, but also helping to form collective efforts to address workplace injustice and advocate for better legal protections.  The Alliance consists of the following groups: United Community Center of Westchester (New Rochelle), Neighbors Link (Mt. Kisco), Community Resource Center (Mamaroneck), Obreros Unidos of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York (Yonkers) and Don Bosco Workers’ Center (Port Chester).  To read more about the Alliance’s accomplishments, click here.

Hudson Valley Justice Center conducts regularly scheduled legal clinics at each Alliance member site and, when appropriate, provides legal representation to workers in State and Federal Court to recover stolen wages and seek relief for other violations of labor and employment laws.  Our attorneys and paralegals focus not only on vindicating our clients’ rights but also on supporting our worker center partners to develop power through base building, leadership development and successful policy reform campaigns.

HVJC meet with Nancy Fernandez at Community Resource Center’s Workers’ Rights program in Mamaroneck to review case files
Members of Obreros Unidos explain their efforts to organize for better working conditions.

MORE ABOUT THE WAGE THEFT CRISIS

Image result for no pay, no way campaign
Don Bosco Worker’s Center “No Pay, No Way” Campaign – an innovative effort to address wage theft as a community-wide problem

1.  What is Wage Theft?

Wage theft is an illegal practice in which a company fails to compensate workers for their time, short-changes them on their benefits or intentionally misclassifies employees in order to save money.

The nonpayment or underpayment of wages by employers occurs with alarming frequency across the low-wage labor market, frequently affecting restaurant, household, day, farm, construction and manufacturing workers.

2. How does wage theft affect workers, communities, and local governments?

Wage theft increases poverty. A study by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in New York and California determined that affected employees’ lost weekly wages averaged 37-49 % of their income. This pushed between 15,000 and 67,000 families below the poverty line.  Moreover, an estimated 50,000-100,000 already impoverished families were driven deeper into poverty, as a result.1

Wage theft decreases state revenue. It also reduces spending in the local economy and places strain on emergency social services that cost taxpayers.2 In 2010, state agencies in New York assessed more than $38 million in unpaid taxes, premiums, interest and penalties, and they identified more than 11,600 unreported or misclassified workers.3 This widespread flouting of labor laws leads to a major drop out of fiscal revenue.

3. Why is wage theft so prevalent?

Chris Calabrese from Communication Workers of America speaks at Don Bosco Worker Center’s  press conference in Port Chester, NY

It is widely acknowledged that a breakdown of government enforcement has made wage theft more prevalent. Enforcement actions by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. DOL decreased from 51,643 in 1998 to 29,584 in 2007, despite an increase in the number of work sites and employees.3 Although low-wage workers are most vulnerable to violations of wage and hour laws, the Division often fails to target low-wage and high-violation industries. As a result, with this small likelihood of detection, employers in low-wage industries have little incentive to comply with the law,  the low risk associated with noncompliance rendering worker protections obsolete.3

To understand wage theft, one must understand the environment in which it thrives. Power imbalances between employers and employees, insecure employment, threats of employer retaliation, insufficient knowledge of employment laws, immigration status, little confidence that government enforcement agencies will safeguard workers’ rights, and plain economic necessity–all these factors

drive workers to accept the mistreatment and to endure workplace hardships individually and silently.3 As a result, employers most often have the upper hand in low-wage industries.

4. What are Workers’ Centers?

Alianza Laboral members and County Legislator David Gelfarb announce the introduction of legislation to combat wage theft.

Worker centers are defined as community-based and community-led organizations that provide support to low-wage workers. They offer assistance with campaigns for improving wages and working conditions, legal support for wage and hour claims, community advocacy, leadership development, and educational programs. Often the workers they support are immigrants who are not part of a collective bargaining entity,4 such as a union or who are excluded from federal labor laws.

In Westchester County, five non-profit worker centers make up the Westchester Labor Alliance, a vibrant coalition fighting to end wage theft and promote workplace dignity for their members.  Hudson Valley Justice Center serves as a legal partner to the Labor Alliance, providing free legal assistance to individuals and groups in employment law cases, supporting organizing efforts and assisting in legislative advocacy.

5. Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor standards for full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in federal, state, and local governments.

Nonexempt employees are those who are covered by the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions. An employee who is paid on an hourly basis is usually considered to be nonexempt, regardless of the hourly rate paid. Employees generally classified as nonexempt include, but are not limited to, clerical, blue-collar, maintenance, construction, and semiskilled workers, as well as technicians and laborers.5

New York Labor Law

Under the New York Labor Law, the current minimum wage for NYC is $11.00 for staff working under large employers (11 or fewer employees) and $10.50 for staff working under small employers (10 or fewer employees). In the remainder of downstate (Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties), it is $10.00 and in the rest of the state the minimum wage is $9.70. The minimum wage will increase over the next five years for each area, reaching $15 for all areas [large employers, small employers, remainder of downstate, and rest of New York State] by the end of the 2018 year, the end of 2019, the end of 2021, and incrementally after the beginning of 2021, respectively. Workers in certain industries are entitled to higher hourly wages.6

New York’s Wage Theft Prevention Act

The Wage Theft Prevention Act (WTPA) took effect on April 9, 2011. The law requires employers to give written notice of wage rates to each new hire.

The notice must include:

  • Rate or rates of pay, including overtime rate of pay (if it applies)
  • How the employee is paid: by the hour, shift, day, week, commission, etc.
  • Regular payday
  • Official name of the employer and any other names used for business
  • Address and phone number of the employer’s main office or principal location
  • Allowances taken as part of the minimum wage (tips, meal and lodging deductions)

The notice must be given both in English and in the employee’s primary language (if the Labor Department offers a translation). The WTPA also included other provisions, such as stronger protections for whistleblowers and increased penalties for wage theft.7

 

Sources

  1. Eisenbury N. Wage Theft by Employers is Costing U.S. Workers Billions of Dollars a Year. Economic Policy Institute. February 13, 2015.
  2. Heekin A. Micah Award Recipient 2015. Don Bosco Workers, Inc. 
  3. Theodore N. The Movement to End Wage Theft. The Discount Foundation report. Published October 2011.
  4. The Hand That Feeds Film. 2017
  5. FSLA. BLR website.
  6. New York Minimum Wage Laws. Employment Law Handbook website.
  7. Notice of Pay Rate. Department of Labor