On a bustling sidewalk in the Dominican neighborhood of New York City’s
Washington Heights, Carmen Calderon reaches over a folding table to
wave a pamphlet at a sandwich delivery man, shouting in Spanish, "You
know your rights as a worker?" The man smiles and keeps biking.
in the course of an afternoon Calderon manages to lure others and
deliver her message, part of a new effort by New York State’s Labor
Department to combat wage theft among this city’s enormous immigrant
Calderon says it’s amazing what immigrants don’t
know about: the minimum wage, overtime, lunch breaks or that labor laws
apply to them even if they’re in the U.S. illegally. Several people
stop to confide about bad treatment at work, but want to know if
they’ll be deported if they complain. Even if they’re legal, Calderon
says, typically humble immigrants are unlikely to report abuse.
don’t want to ruffle any feathers," she says. "It’s like, ‘Wow, he’s
doing me a favor, he gave me a job.’ But they don’t realize they’re
being abused by the person supposedly doing them the favor."
the foreign-born making up half of New York’s work force, labor
officials say wage and hour violations are stunningly widespread, from
upscale restaurants where bathroom attendants are paid only in tips, to
the city’s car washes, where inspectors last year found three-quarters
did not pay minimum wage or overtime.
Faced with such an
overwhelming problem, the Labor Department has joined forces with
immigrant advocacy groups for what they call "wage watch" an approach
taken straight from the concept of Neighborhood Watches.
cool evening, four teams of state investigators descend on the tony
neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. They no longer wait to respond to
complaints. Instead, clipboards in hand, they’re paying surprise visits
to 22 restaurants. They scope out any basement exits first and post a
member outside; this is in case kitchen workers mistake them for
immigration agents and try to flee.
At a family-friendly
chicken place, one team heads inside and investigator Aristoteles
Rodriguez slides his department ID across the counter.
for the New York State Department of Labor," he tells the cashier.
"We’re basically conducting an investigation of your business, and we
need to speak with some of your employees."
The cashier looks
wary and picks up the phone to call the manager. A few customers near
the front window don’t seem to notice anything. Rodriguez heads to the
back bar to start interviewing waitstaff.
"Sunday, what time do you come in?" he asks a nervous looking young man.
goes through each day of the week, asking about hours worked and then
pay. The man says he gets $25 for an eight-hour shift, less than half
of New York’s minimum wage for waiters. He also works several 12-hour
days, but says he gets no overtime.
Deputy Labor Commissioner
Terri Gerstein has come along on this sweep, something she’s been doing
every couple of months as the department takes its more aggressive
approach. On the sidewalk out front, an employee tells her he is paid
in cash and describes a grueling workweek of more than 80 hours.
"How many days off do you have?" Gerstein asks.
"I don’t have time off," he says with a slight hint of indignation. "The only rest I get is three hours at most," once a week.
interview suddenly ends as the restaurant manager arrives, asking,
"What’s the problem?" Some workers scurry inside while others come out
to watch. Gerstein explains they’re investigating a number of
restaurants in Brooklyn and after a tense exchange takes down his name
and hands him her card.
Then she adds, "I also just want to make sure you know it’s against the law to retaliate against workers for talking to us."
manager, Fernando Tisoc, says his accountant will call to clear up any
problems. Later, he tells NPR his workers’ tips make up for their low
hourly pay. He insists the restaurant isn’t breaking any laws, though
says he isn’t aware of any provision on overtime pay.
sweep, labor officials will decide which restaurants to formally audit.
They used to investigate individual employees’ allegations, only to see
some workers fired. Now, Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith says her
department works hard to protect the identities of those who claim
"So we will go in and we will audit the whole
establishment, so that the employer is much less likely to know who, if
anyone, complained," she says.
The department has also asked for higher penalties against businesses that retaliate.
who took over as New York’s labor commissioner two years ago, says that
for too long, labor enforcement both in New York and at the federal level was lax. Smith says the challenge isn’t only that so many workers are vulnerable
immigrants, but that many of their employers are also foreign born and
may know little of U.S. labor laws.
"I talk to a lot of
employers who are in violation of the law," she says. "And when you ask
them what was the story they basically say, ‘I bought the store from
Joe X, and this is what Joe X did and so this is what I did."
says education is key, and so as part of the Wage Watch program her
department has teamed up with Make the Road New York and the Retail,
Wholesale and Department Store Union. Each week local activists in the
Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn make their own workplace visits,
handing out pamphlets on labor laws to both management and workers.
also on the lookout for possible violations to report to the Labor
Department. Nieves Padilla of Make the Road New York says she can
gather tips better than any labor department official. She knows this
neighborhood, and everyone knows her.
"Even if I’m just in a
store to buy something, all the managers think I’m investigating," says
Padilla. "They say, ‘Ah, here’s the troublemaker!’ They follow me
around and try to keep me away from their employees. But the workers
know me too, and actually, we have a way of communicating without even
Padilla demonstrates this knack in a health and
beauty store, where one employee seems too nervous to talk with her
manager nearby. As the woman watches, Padilla strolls into an aisle,
slips a workers rights pamphlet between boxes of hair color and then
leaves. The employee gives her a smiling glance as she moves to
discreetly retrieve the pamphlet. The manager has seen nothing.
York’s Wage Watch is just a few months old, and officials say it’s too
soon to measure success. But the pilot program is set to expand across
the state this summer.