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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Brooklyn Sweep Shows Local Focus in Fight on Labor Violations

On a Brooklyn street cluttered with dollar
stores and cuchifrito stands, New York State’s labor commissioner announced on
Wednesday a stepped-up enforcement effort against neighborhood businesses that
violate the state’s wage and hour laws.

At a news conference on Knickerbocker Avenue, the main commercial
strip in Bushwick, the commissioner, M. Patricia Smith, said labor law
violations had been found at 19 of 26 businesses inspected as part of a recent
sweep in the neighborhood. She said the other seven retailers were still under

Among the infractions found were failures to
pay the state’s minimum wage, $7.15 an hour, to pay time and a half for overtime
and to keep proper records. Ms. Smith said several stores had paid employees
$300 to $400 for working weeks of 60 to 72 hours.

"This new initiative is about targeting
industries that do not play by the rules," she said. "We will take action
against employers who cheat their employees."

Ms. Smith said the effort was part of Gov.
Eliot Spitzer’s push to intensify labor enforcement, not just against wage
claims but also companies that improperly classify employees as independent
contractors and that do not pay workers’ compensation premiums.

The inspection of the 26 businesses uncovered
more than $200,000 in violations, she said, adding that she expected that
number to increase as her staff further studied the businesses’ wage records.
Businesses with infractions will be required to pay fines, as well back wages
to workers who suffered violations.

Investigators found that a car wash had
illegally underpaid nine employees a total of $97,979 over the past year
because of minimum wage and overtime violations. A clothing store was found to
have underpaid employees by $40,679 and to have inadequate record-keeping.

Ms. Smith was known for her aggressive
enforcement efforts when she ran the attorney general’s labor bureau under Mr.
Spitzer, and she said she wanted to use many of the same strategies at the
Labor Department.

"We’re not going to sit back anymore and wait
for complaints to come in the door," she said. "We’re going to look at whole
industries and geographic areas so we can try to have a bigger impact where we
think violations are occurring."

As part of its new enforcement push, the
Labor Department plans to work closely with community organizations, religious
groups and labor unions that often uncover evidence of violations. The
investigation in Bushwick stemmed from tips from the Retail, Wholesale and
Department Store Union and Make the Road New York, a community group based in

"We’re going to be partnering with folks who
have a real ear to the ground so that we can focus on industries and neighborhoods
where we have reason to believe there are violations, and not just knock on
doors randomly," Ms. Smith said.

At the news conference, Andrew Friedman, co-director of Make the Road, said:
"Today we are sending a message to workers that you have rights in the
workplace and that you are not alone. Workers cannot protect rights they do not
know they have, and they cannot protect their rights if they are afraid."

Make the Road has repeatedly filed complaints
with the attorney general and the Labor Department with evidence that some
Bushwick retailers are paying workers just $3 or $4 an hour.