NEW YORK—The Wage Theft Prevention Act, which would penalize unscrupulous employers who withhold wages from their employees, waits to become law pending a resolution introduced by City Council members who were joined by supporters on Wednesday in hopes of moving the process forward.
The New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate passed individually two separate bills in the summer that aimed at combating the wage theft problem.
Though the bills are similar in nature, they fail to have the same provisions. For the wage theft protection act to be passed, the bills must be reconciled through another piece of legislation. Supporters of the act are hoping to reconcile the bills and get them signed by Gov. Patterson so that some type of wage theft bill can become law before the end of the year, otherwise the process will need to begin all over again.
Much of the evidence of the extent of the problem New York City workers are facing comes from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and the testimony of NELP’s codirector Annette Bernhardt, given in front of the New York City Council on Nov. 10.
Bernhardt, the lead author of “Working Without Laws: A Survey of Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City,” which was released last year, examined a survey conducted in 2008 with nearly 1,500 low-wage workers in the city. The survey reached some of the most vulnerable workers, including workers paid in cash.
The survey found a wide range of violations including minimum wage, overtime, off the clock work, meal break violations, and paystub violations, to name a few. According to the survey, approximately 70 percent of those sampled experienced meal break violations, while 21 percent were paid less than minimum wage. It is estimated that every year New York City employees loose $1 billion through wage theft.
In her testimony, Bernhardt said workplace violations are prevalent in five areas of industries including, retail, caregiver, construction, personal services such as car washes and beauty salons, and building services such as security guard services. She also noted that those employed in smaller companies with less than 100 employees are more likely to experience violations.
Dimas Pineda, a member of Make the Road NY told his story of wage theft on Wednesday on the steps of City Hall. After working 12-hour days and six day weeks in a restaurant for one year prepping and delivering food, he said he was paid only half of what he was promised. Pineda said he was promised $600 in compensation for a week’s work and was only paid $300.
“Most workers are too afraid to stand up for their rights,” said Pineda.
Deborah Axt, deputy director of Make the Road New York, an NYC-based membership organization of 8,000 Latino families and 600 small businesses who drafted the Wage Theft Prevention Act advocated damages owed be increased from 25 percent to at least 100 percent of the wages owed.
The act also includes creating automatic damages of up to $10,000 awarded to the employee if they are discharged as a result of speaking up about unpaid wages. Additionally, the act would force noncompliant employers found guilty of wage theft to pay an increase of 15 percent of the amount owed if the payment is not made within 90 days of the judgment.
“When people work hard they get a paycheck, or they get the tips that are part of the job, that’s money earned, and money they should get to take home to their family or to put into their bank account,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “It’s a very unfortunate situation that there are bosses and owners out there who are acting in ways that are just not appropriate.”
Quinn said there must be stiffer penalties for violators, especially now during tough economic times.
“It puts people in a position where loosing that hundred dollars in a paycheck may be the difference between them being able to pay their utility bill, or pay their rent, or get the medication that they and their families need,” said Quinn.
"Today, with 12,600 dues-paying members, MRNY is a unique amalgam of worker center, legal clinic, citizenship school, mutual aid society, policy shop, protest factory and church. Its four offices in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island are an egalitarian oasis for members, who gather there for conversation and classes..."