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Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Albany Passes Bills Helping Low-Wage Workers

State legislators passed three different bills Thursday aimed at raising standards for workers in some of the lowest-wage industries in New York.

Both the Assembly and Senate passed a revised version of a controversial bill that will raise the salaries of contracted service workers in public utility facilities. Giants like Consolidated Edison and National Grid had previously been exempt from prevailing-wage laws, but Thursday’s action by legislators sets the stage for 2,000 workers to see their salaries jump from as little as $7.75 an hour to as much as $21.80 per hour, plus benefits.

"Too many hard-working New Yorkers are in need of public assistance because utilities like Con Edison are denying them a fair wage," said Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, who was the prime sponsor of the bill. "This legislation will cure this injustice and ensure that these dedicated men and women can adequately provide for their families."

Prevailing wage for janitors in New York City is $21.80 an hour, plus $8.36 an hour in benefits, with workers getting 80% of the rate for their first 30 months on the job. Security guards in the city get up to $14.35 an hour, plus $4.46 in benefits. The rates upstate are considerably lower, with janitors getting $8.55 an hour plus $2.28 in benefits.

Business improvement districts, which waged a late but loud campaign to be carved out of the bill, were exempted from the prevailing wage requirement. And the utilities vowed to take their fight against the bill to Gov. David Paterson’s office, where they’ll encourage him to veto the measure.

“It’s amazing that in this economy lawmakers would approve legislation that serves only to raise utility rates for customers and result in the loss of jobs, particularly for minorities and women,” said a Con Ed spokesman.

A Paterson spokeswoman said the bill had not yet made it to the governor’s desk.

In other action in Albany Thursday, the Assembly passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which increases penalties on employers who violate wage and hour laws and don’t properly keep records. The act also beefs up protections for workers who are retaliated against for standing up for their rights, and gives the commissioner of labor new powers that should make it easier to collect damages from employers who violate the law.

“It’s crucial that we level the playing field so that fair-paying employers aren’t at a competitive disadvantage to employers who underpay their workers,” said Assemblyman Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, the bill’s prime sponsor. “The measure prevents the good guys from being undercut by the bad guys. This legislation and enforcement would provide millions more in tax revenue for the state.”

The Senate passed a slightly less stringent version of the bill on Wednesday and the two measures must now be reconciled before being sent to the governor for his signature.

Both versions of the bill raise the incentive for employers to comply with minimum wage and overtime laws by increasing penalties for violations. The Senate version compels violators to pay the wages, plus 100% liquidated damages, while the Assembly version calls for 200% liquidated damages. Under current law, liquidated damages are 25%.

"Right now there’s no incentive for bad actor employers to comply with the law," said Amy Carroll, legal director of Make the Road New York, which advocated for the bill. "They say ‘I’ll save so much by not paying overtime that it makes better economic sense to skim it out now even if I’m caught later.’"

The Business Council of New York State submitted a memo in opposition to the bill, arguing it would prevent employers from adding jobs.

"This bill would compound the difficulty of doing business in New York State by creating an unnecessary and burdensome paperwork and penalty regime," the memo said. "At a time when our state economy is struggling, the imposition, particularly on small and medium sized businesses, is vastly disproportioned to any genuine or valid concern for proper pay and compliance with the state labor law requirements."

And finally, as expected, lawmakers approved the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which makes New York’s housekeepers, nannies and elderly caregivers the first such workers in the nation to be protected by basic labor laws.

The bill provides domestic workers with a paid day of rest per week and three additional paid days off after a year on the job, with overtime kicking in if they work on those designated days off. It also includes domestic workers under workers’ compensation, unemployment, disability and human rights laws.

"Their work is of incalculable value, yet our laws have failed to recognize it," said Mr. Paterson in a statement in which he promised to sign the measure into law. "This bill would change that, and serve as a model for such change on a national scale."