Almost 50 members of the SWEAT (Securing Wages Earned Against Theft) Coalition traveled to Albany last week to announce the release of a report on wage theft and to expose how the legal system helps employers avoid responsibility for that crime. They were joined by Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal who announced a new bill to help workers collect their stolen wages. In attendance were workers and advocates from NMASS, the Chinese Staff & Workers Association, Flushing Workers Center, Sweatshop Free Upper West Side, Los Jornaleros Unidos (Day Laborers United), Sisa Pakari, Urban Justice Center, Legal Aid Society, Empire Justice Center, and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
Assembly Member Rosenthal’s bill, no. A5501 will help put teeth into the labor law by closing the loopholes through which criminal bosses escape with workers hard earned wages. The bill will: 1) expand New York’s lien law so that all workers can put a temporary lien on their employer’s property; 2) allow a judge to attach the employers’ assets before a labor case has concluded; and 3) make it easier to hold primary shareholders of companies liable for wage theft. Rosenthal said, “My legislation will help to remove the barriers employees face when trying to collect legal judgments for unpaid wages.”
Jin Ming Cao who worked at Wu Liang Ye, and Carmen Aguilera and Rocio Velez Vargas, formerly of La Posada restaurant, spoke about their experiences with favorable judgments as nothing more than pieces of paper.. In both their cases, they and their co-workers filed claims for stolen wages, only to have their employers shut down the restaurants and re-open under new names; the La Posada employer also put his property in the names of family members. Cao said, “We got a judgment in court for $1.8 million but we haven’t collected a penny.” He held up a copy of the judgment and he tore up in exasperation. “It’s only a piece of paper.” Aguilera added, “The law has to change so that workers, if we win the case, can make the boss pay.”
SWEAT representative Amy Tai, summarized the findings of the SWEAT report “Empty Judgments: the Wage Collection Crisis in New York.” Workers in New York State are owed more than $125 million in stolen wages even after receiving judgments in court or at the Department of Labor, based on a survey of 17 legal services organizations and the State Labor Department from the last few years.
Jei Fong of CSWA spoke of how wage theft and collection problems are not just low-wage workers’ problem, but workers of all industries are increasingly affected, including those robbed of their prevailing wages, misclassified as salaried workers or independent contractors, and union workers faced with retaliation. She said the SWEAT bill was essential. “Some people say we need more resources for the Labor Department. But what good is that, if we can’t collect? Some say we need double or treble damages. But what good is that, if we can’t collect? Some say we should shut down the law-breaking businesses? But what good is that if they just open up under a new name and avoid paying?”
Roberto Menesis of Los Jornaleros Unidos and Fanny Guadalupe of Sisa Pakari also spoke of their members’ experiences with wage theft. Members of SWEAT concluded the day with visits with legislators.
In a related achievement, the Labor Department announcement on Tuesday that tipped workers will finally see a minimum wage increase to $7.50 an hour. This Wage Order comes after a year of picketing and protesting by service workers and other members of our Justice Will Be Served Campaign.
Let’s build on this momentum! Let’s circulate the SWEAT report all over New York State and get everybody talking about the SWEAT bill. Contact us to get involved!