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Sep
2015
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Even In Places Where Wage Theft Is Being Tackled, More Must Be Done

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In a piece for NextCity.org’s Equity Factor blog, writer Oscar Perry Abello views wage theft through the lens of Queens, NY, an area where labor centers and activists have made several positive changes to combat the epidemic.  While wage theft still exists in the NYC borough, groups like the Flushing Workers Center have given many a voice and an opportunity to recover back wages.  As Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the group, told NextCity:

“There were a lot of workers who were coming out about wage theft in the Flushing area, but employers are very well-organized.  They threatened workers who speak up with blacklisting or other crazy forms of retaliation, sometimes even using physical violence.”

In both New York City and New York state, wage theft grew out of control following the great recession as businesses became more adept at getting away with the crime in order to maintain profits.  One study from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimated that employers in NYC were stealing nearly $1 billion a year from low-wage workers.  The same study estimated that wage theft in NYC affected 586,322 workers annually.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in July that the state had already recovered more than $18.1 million in back wages for more than 19,000 workers this year, putting it on pace for a new record. But some workers are still having trouble recovering what is rightfully theirs.  The NELP report showed that as of August 2013, New York State’s Department of Labor had a backlog of more than 17,000 open wage theft cases, more than three times as many as it had in 2008.  A report from Urban Justice earlier this year showed that there were still at least $125 million in wage theft judgements and court orders open in the state of New York.  Many experts agree that new procedures and legislation are needed to help workers collect.  Among them is Ahn, who told Next City:

Without organizing workers across shops, across different industries, it’s hard for them to get anywhere with wage theft cases.  I think employers got very savvy about how to get away with wage theft, compared to not too long ago.

Among those seeking answers is New York State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, who recently authored the SWEAT Bill to allow courts to freeze the assets of employers when wage theft proceedings are ongoing.  As Rosenthal wrote of her proposed bill:

“So many employers, when faced with employees’ legal action, declare bankruptcy or reorganize their companies through a series of LLCs to escape judgment.  Employees who do win a judgment are left with an unenforceable piece of paper and hundreds or thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and overtime.”

Ahn supports the bill, noting, ““We want workers to have the legal tool to hold employers’ assets at the beginning of investigations so they can’t come to court three years later and say they have nothing.”

Such a bill could assist one of the latest groups to seek back wages in Queens, a group of car washers at A.J.A. Car Wash. They are taking the company to Brooklyn Federal Court for $400,000 in back wages.  Miguel Yax, a 34-year-old who has worked at the car wash for 15 years, told DNAinfo.com that he is currently making $7 an hour, while some workers earn just $6. 

”I generally worked six days a week for over 70 hours a week but the boss doesn’t pay us any overtime,” he said.

State initiatives aimed at stemming this fraudulent tide are achieving small success, but programs and legislation at the federal level are needed to make more permanent changes.  Find out more from NextCity’s deep dive in Queens.

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