En EspaƱol Know Your Rights
Source: New York State Department of Labor
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Labor Department Initiative Empowers Ordinary People to Join the Fight Against Wage Theft

New York Wage Watch, the Only One of Its Kind in the Nation, to Roll out in New York City and Long Island

At a press conference in New York
City, State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith today announced the
formation of New York Wage Watch, a new tool in the fight against labor
law violations in New York State. New York Wage Watch will focus on a
variety of illegal practices, jointly referred to as wage theft,
including payment of subminimum wages; nonpayment of wages; failure to
pay overtime; tip stealing; and other such violations.

Modeled in part after the Neighborhood Watch program, New York Wage
Watch will help promote labor law compliance through formal
partnerships between the New York State Labor Department and community
groups. The effort will start with a pilot program with several groups
in New York City and Long Island for the first six months, and then be
opened up to interested groups from throughout the state.

The first model of its kind, New York Wage Watch will provide
ordinary people with a formal and systematic role in the fight against
wage theft. Participating groups will select a geographic zone for
their efforts, and within that zone, they will participate in a range
of activities aimed at improving labor law compliance, including
holding know-your-rights training; providing employers with information
about compliance; and distributing literature to workers in
supermarkets, laundromats, nail salons, and other community settings.
When they encounter workers facing serious violations of the law or
employers with detailed questions about compliance, New York Wage Watch
groups will have a designated point person for referrals in the Labor
Department’s Division of Labor Standards, which enforces wage and hour
laws. The Department will provide training and materials to
participating groups.

"Just as no one wants to live in an area riddled with crime, nobody
wants to live in a neighborhood where workers are paid sweatshop
wages," said Commissioner Smith. "New York Wage Watch will increase
labor law compliance by giving regular people a formal role in creating
lawful workplaces statewide, and thereby improving the quality of life
in their communities. It will also help law-abiding employers, who
struggle to compete with businesses that undercut them by violating the
law. "

In recent years, the Labor Department has uncovered widespread labor
law violations in a broad range of industries and locations throughout
the state. An industry-based investigation of car washes in 2008
revealed that over 78% of New York City car washes inspected were not
paying minimum wage or overtime. Nearly half of 303 employers visited
on joint enforcement sweeps in Buffalo, Albany, the Bronx, and Queens
required follow up for wage and hour violations. The Labor Department
found serious violations at ordinary stores, restaurants, and offices
statewide, as well as at state icons like the Saratoga Race Course,
where over a hundred backstretch workers interviewed reported a pattern
of illegal wages, and at the Erie County Fair, where bathroom
attendants were paid no wages and were even forced to give half of
their tips to a subcontractor.

"These violations are far more common than many people realize, but
they plague our communities and diminish the quality of life for New
York’s workers," said Commissioner Smith. "We are enforcing the law as
creatively and aggressively as we can, but the government cannot do it
alone. We need concerned members of the public to help raise awareness
about wage theft, to educate workers and employers about the law, and
to help serve as a bridge between our agency and workers who might be
unlikely to come to us on their own."

Over the past few years, the Department of Labor has forged informal
partnerships with advocacy groups and grassroots organizations on
behalf of workers. A more proactive approach by the Division of Labor
Standards, combined with efforts of the newly created Bureau of
Immigrant Workers’ Rights, has resulted in more sustained and effective
partnering. One such relationship, with the Retail, Wholesale and
Department Store Union (RWDSU), and Make the Road New York, led the
Department to investigate a commercial strip in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
During the course of this investigation, the Labor Department found
$350,000 in wage underpayments were owed to 60 workers. In the ensuing
weeks and months, the RWDSU and Make the Road New York maintained a
presence in the area, talking with businesses and workers about labor
law. A labor law seminar was also conducted for employers in the area.
Labor law compliance appears to have increased in Bushwick as a result
of this joint effort. New York Wage Watch aims to replicate the
enhanced effectiveness resulting from the coordination of law
enforcement efforts with ongoing presence and involvement of community
members.

This pilot program will begin with a small number of groups who are
already working on labor issues. Each group has referred a number of
cases to the Department of Labor in recent years. The groups are Centro
del Inmigrante in Staten Island; Chinese Staff and Workers’
Association; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); Make
the Road New York
; United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local
1500; and The Workplace Project in Long Island.

Next month, each of these groups will receive language-specific
training from Department of Labor staff. The first trainings will be
held on Saturday February 7 at the Murphy Center for Labor Studies in
Manhattan, in English, Spanish and Chinese, and will cover basic labor
laws affecting workers such as minimum wage, overtime and meal periods.
The Department of Labor will also be providing multi-lingual outreach
materials to each Wage Watch group to hand out to workers and
businesses.

After a six-month pilot period with these groups, the Labor
Department will begin seeking additional groups who wish to participate
statewide. Each group should be a non-governmental, non-profit entity,
such as a community group, religious organization, student group, labor
union, business association, or neighborhood association. Groups must
have at least six members and must select a geographic region to focus
upon – this may be as small as several blocks in an urban setting or as
large as several counties elsewhere. Groups need not have prior
labor-related experience.

Stuart Appelbaum, President of the 100,000 member Retail, Wholesale
and Department Store Union said, "New York Wage Watch is labor law
enforcement at the purest, most grassroots level. This program will
allow unions, community groups and churches to engage in the fight
against the exploitation of workers in our neighborhoods. It is
critical that employers do not take advantage of workers and their
families during these difficult economic times."

Amy Carroll, Supervising Attorney for Workplace Rights at Make the
Road New York
said, "Wage theft is rampant in many low-wage industries
and immigrant neighborhoods, in large part because workers are afraid
to come forward and file a complaint when their rights are violated.
New York Wage watch allows the State Department of Labor to partner
with organizations, like Make the Road New York, that already have
workers’ trust. In our experience, community monitoring of employer
conduct is critical to ensure that employers caught violating the law
today actually pay their workers correctly tomorrow. Employers will be
dramatically less likely to violate wage and hour law when they know
that trained community members are on the ground as the eyes and ears
of the DOL’s wage enforcement units."

Bruce W. Both, President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union
Local 1500, New York States Largest Grocery Workers Union said, "UFCW
Local 1500 commends the New York State Department of Labor for its
innovative approach to promote labor law compliance among New York
State’s employers. UFCW Local 1500 is excited to participate in the
Wage Watch program, as we see it as both a creative yet fiscally
efficient way to educate workers and employers about their labor rights
and obligations during these difficult economic times. Our long history
of working with the DOL, Commissioner Patricia Smith and her dedicated
staff has taught us that grocery workers, especially Gourmet Grocery
Workers, will greatly benefit from such a program. Workers in this
industry have high rates of not being paid according to New York State
Wage and Hour laws. UFCW Local 1500 looks forward to making Wage Watch
a successful collaborative effort."

Gonzalo Mercado, Director, El Centro del Inmigrante said, "El Centro
del Inmigrante applauds the New York State Department of Labor for the
creation of the Wage Watch Program. Thousands of workers every year are
victims of wage and hour violations and this initiative is a great tool
to help enforce the labor laws that most of the time are not known by
the workers nor by their employers. Immigrant workers are the most
exploited and most vulnerable and we look forward to collaborating in
this endeavor."

Nadia Marin-Molina, Executive Director of the Workplace Project
said, "During this time of economic crisis, it is more important than
ever that the wages of workers, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, are
protected, so that workers can pay rent and feed their families. On
Long Island, the Workplace Project has shown that, with education,
organizing, and support, community members – day laborers, domestic
workers, and factory workers, for example – are willing to stand up and
fight exploitation on the job at great personal risk. The Wage Watch
program will now allow us to link a trained community team to work
closely with the New York State Department of Labor, so that employers
will not be able to abuse workers with impunity. The Workplace Project
is excited to participate in this innovative partnership with the DOL
and looks forward to engaging many more community members to stop wage
theft through this collaboration."

To find out what you can do to establish a New York Wage Watch group in your community, send an email to NewYorkWageWatch@labor.state.ny.us or call 1-888-52-LABOR.