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Know Your Rights
Source: News 10
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Gov. Cuomo wants to protect workers in NY State

Governor Cuomo says recent investigations to protect exploited workers in New York State have led to nearly $3.3 million in back wages, damages and settlements for 800 workers.

These efforts have included a targeted wage investigation of car washes that uncovered more than $446,000 in underpayments; an investigation of supermarket locations that found hundreds workers who hadn’t been receiving the proper wages; and more than $1 million in settlements or ordered damages for employees who alleged unlawful discrimination against their employers.

As part of the Governor’s state-wide efforts to crack down on worker exploitation, state investigators conduct investigations spanning many industries where there are low-wage workers — including nail salons, restaurants, construction companies, grocery stores and car washes. Workers are often victimized through wage theft, human trafficking, retaliation, unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, unstable or unscheduled hours and illegal deductions for supplies, training or uniforms.

The State works with a variety of stakeholders, including advocacy organizations, labor unions, business associations, employees and members of the public, in identifying potential violations of law and regulations.

Protecting Car Wash Workers

In late May, State investigators — acting on tips from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, New York Communities for Change and Make The Road New York — visited 11 car washes in Brooklyn and interviewed 77 workers. The Department of Labor met off-site with groups of workers after hours to gather additional information. Since the investigation, the State has identified more than $446,000 in underpayments, along with more than $111,000 in liquidated damages, both owed to 97 workers. The businesses must also pay $30,000 in penalties.

Since January 2011, the Department of Labor has investigated wage theft complaints at 98 car washes throughout the State. These investigations found 91 violations and have led to more than $211,000 being returned to more than 130 workers.

Protecting Restaurant Workers

Between January and June 2015, State investigators identified more than $680,000 in wage underpayments and liquidated damages against restaurants in located in Queens. Investigators visited 10 restaurants in Queens and found 43 workers who were not being paid the proper wages or overtime. Businesses were also assessed $35,000 in penalties.

In Manhattan during the same time period, State investigators visited nine restaurants and found $588,000 in wage underpayments and liquidated damages for 64 workers. The businesses were also assessed $25,000 in penalties.

Earlier this year, Acting Labor Commissioner Mario J. Musolino issued a wage order, based on the recommendations of the Hospitality Wage Board, to raise the wages for tipped hospitality workers state-wide beginning Dec. 31, 2015.

Protecting Supermarket Workers

A similar investigation was launched at 25 C-Town Supermarket locations in Brooklyn. Between December 2014 and January 2015, State investigators have uncovered more than $360,000 in wage underpayments for 323 workers. They have also assessed nearly $90,000 in liquidated damages which will also be paid to workers.

Several of the locations were found to be in compliance with the law and some have already paid their workers the wages owed. Other locations have entered into payment plans or remain under investigation.

Protecting Farm Workers

During the first six months of 2015, State Agriculture Labor Specialists assisted in recovering more than $9,000 in back wages for 23 farm workers who were underpaid.

Agriculture Labor Specialists on Long Island and north of New York City also found and referred state and federal law violations related to farm worker housing. These included unsafe housing conditions, non-potable water, overcrowding and more. Suspected cases of retaliation and labor trafficking were also referred.

During the first half of 2015, State investigators conducted more than 380 field visits and met with 300 agricultural businesses to offer hiring assistance and educate employers about labor law compliance and available resources. The agency has increased the number of field visits, reduced the number of violations and is protecting workers by helping more businesses comply with the law.

Providing Relief for Workers Subject to Unlawful Discrimination
In addition to recovering wages for workers, the State is working to continuously protect workers from race, national origin, disability, sex and other discrimination in the workplace. Since June 2015, the Division of Human Rights has achieved settlements or ordered damages totaling over $1 million on behalf of over 250 employees across New York State who alleged unlawful employment discrimination against employers in a variety of industries, including retail, food service, hospitality, building maintenance and health care.

For example, in the supermarket industry over the past three months, the State Division of Human Rights ordered damages or achieved settlements totaling over $100,000 in 10 discrimination complaints statewide. After a July hearing, the Division ordered a supermarket located in Queens to pay $8,215.90 in back pay and compensatory damages and fined the store an additional $5,000 after a diabetic cashier was terminated for asking to take breaks during her shift to use the restroom. Although store policy was to allow employees two breaks per shift, the cashier’s manager only permitted her to have one break per eight-hour period. After complaining of feeling faint one day, the store fired the cashier.

In August, the Division settled a complaint for $5,500 from an employee of a waste management company in Holbrook who filed an employment discrimination complaint based on race and retaliation. The employee alleged he was harassed, denied promotions and other benefits, and eventually terminated.

Helping All Exploited Workers

These targeted investigations into abuses in certain industries are part of Governor Cuomo’s efforts to help all exploited workers.

In May, Governor Cuomo announced the Nail Salon Task Force to lead a multi-pronged effort to improve the nail salon industry in New York State. The efforts have already included statutory, regulatory and administrative changes.

In July, building upon his initiative to protect nail salon workers, the Governor announced a first-of-its-kind state-wide task force to root out worker exploitation issues in multiple industries in New York State. The Task Force, composed of 10 State agencies, will identify and halt illegal practices in more industries across the State.

Enforcement efforts will focus on industries with the highest rates of employer non-compliance and where workers are least likely to come forward, for fear of retaliation. Specifically, industries were selected based on geographic or community isolation of the workforce within the industry, danger of the occupation based on reported death rates, state-wide investigator experiences, prevalence of off the books employment by industry and statistics, and percentage of the immigrant workforce in each industry.

Anyone with questions or who is concerned about proper wages, safe working conditions or other violations, should contact the Task Force Hotline at (888) 469-7365.

Mario Cuomo Economic Justice Campaign

In addition to efforts to combat worker exploitation, earlier this month, the Governor launched the Mario Cuomo Economic Justice Campaign. This will include pushing to further raise New York’s minimum wage in 2016, with a goal of $15 an hour. As the Governor said, this is the “single most progressive action we can take to help the families of this state.”

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