Standing outside the New York State
Department of Labor in lower Manhattan, dressed in her work uniform,
a very vocal Nilda Baez listens intently as members of the department
talk about educating workers and employers about fair work practices.
She collects pamphlets and handouts that shes going to distribute
who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1986, has
seen her fair share of worker abuse in this country. She lost her job
at a now bankrupt bus service, she says, because she had to take time
off to undergo two surgeries. She was unemployed for five months and
eventually lost her apartment. She has had to fight for minimum wage,
health benefits, sick leave and sometimes even a paycheck. Acutely aware
of the plight of the immigrant worker, Baez is now determined to help those like her.
Today she is one of 50 people that
have gathered to volunteer with the citys Department of Labor as
part of its pilot Wage and Hour Watch program a collaboration of
five organizations, including the Brooklyn-based Make
the Road New York that
is trying to affect change in the workplace.
Loosely based on the Neighborhood Watch
campaign that began in the 1960s, a grassroots effort aimed at making
neighborhoods safe, the Wage and Hour Watchers program is hoping to
enlist non-profits, trade unions and student groups and around the city
to inform workers about their rights.
Because the labor department cannot
oversee every business, the hope is that the participating organizations
will help disseminate information and keep a watchful eye on their own
neighborhoods. Among those at todays rally, for instance, was the
United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had recently reported
violations at Amish Market and its related stores: Zeytinia, Zeytinz
and Zeytuna. The stores, which specialize in gourmet on-the-go
cuisine and cater to an upscale clientele, operate mostly out of Manhattan,
but also have locations in Queens, Croton-on-Hudson and Hyde Park. As
a result of this investigation, approximately 550 workers will receive
nearly $1.5 million, primarily in unpaid overtime wages.
the Road took its campaign
to Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick. Started in Brooklyn, the organization
promotes economic equality and opportunity and was hoping to use the
day to inform immigrants of their rights.
Through an informal relationship formed
with the Department of Labor and the Retail, Wholesale and Department
Store Union (RWDSU) over the past couple of years, Make
the Road New York found that
$350,000 in wage underpayments were owed to 60 workers on Knickerbocker
Avenue, according to a statement released by Labor Department.
We want justice, said Neives Padilla
from the organization. We have to fight against exploitation. There
are too many cases of abuse especially in restaurants, car washes and
nail salons that something had to be done. Most of these workers dont
know their rights.
Over the past couple of years, the Labor Department
has uncovered labor law violations in various industries 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.
The Department of Labor received 8,000
workers abuse claims in 2008 and projects that that number will to rise
to about 10,000 this year because of the economic downturn, said Terri
Gerstein, Deputy Commissioner of Labor this morning.
And some of those complaints have been
getting attention. Last October, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association
successfully sued restaurant owners, Simon and Michelle Nget of Saigon
Grill in Manhattan, for paying delivery workers far less than the state
minimum wage of $4.85. Some workers had even claimed they were paid
as little as $1.65 an hour. The Ngets were charged with federal and
state labor law violations and were ordered to pay their workers $4.6
million in compensation.
Earlier this month, state labor officials
recovered $2.3 million in wages for more than 800 workers at nine restaurants
including the chain of Ollies noodle shops. The wages were recovered
on behalf of cooks, delivery workers and waiters, some who were owed
as much as $30,000.
The more information gets out there,
the more people will complain to the Department of Labor, Gerstein
said. We need to make it safe for them so that workers dont fear
retaliation. As of now the most we can fine an employee if they fire
someone who complains is $2,000.
Gerstien, also adds, that part of the
campaign is to protect employers against other employers who dont
play by the rules.