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

Street-Level Groups to Look Out for Labor Violations

*Co-Authored By Colin Moynihan

To crack down on businesses that pay below the minimum wage, fail to
pay overtime or to pay wages altogether, steal tips or commit other
labor violations, the New York State Department of Labor is starting an
experimental program that will rely on community organizations to
monitor compliance with labor laws.

In an announcement,
the state labor commissioner, M. Patricia Smith, called the program,
the New York Wage Watch, a “one-of-a-kind grass-roots tool in the fight
against illegal labor practices.”

The six-month pilot will begin with six participants: the Chinese
Staff and Workers’ Association, which will focus on Chinatown, Flushing
and parts of Long Island; Make the Road New York, which will focus on
Bushwick; the Workplace Project, based on Long Island; the United Food
and Commercial Workers union, which will look at high-end supermarkets;
the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which will focus on
retail stores in Lower Manhattan, Bushwick, the Kingsbridge section of
the Bronx and parts of Queens; and the Centro del Inmigrante, based on
Staten Island.

The six groups will conduct know-your-rights training, providing
employers with information about compliance and distributing brochures
to workers in supermarkets, laundromats, nail salons, day-labor sites
and other work areas. They will have a designated contact in the Labor
Department’s Division of Labor Standards, which enforces wage and hour
laws, to whom they can refer violations or detailed questions from

The department is provide training and materials to the participating groups starting Feb. 7.

After the first experiment in New York City and on Long Island, the
Labor Department will seek additional groups to sign up for the
program. The groups must be nongovernmental and nonprofit, and can
include religious organizations, student groups, labor unions, business
associations or neighborhood groups.

Ms. Smith said the program was loosely based on the Neighborhood
Watch programs that began in Queens in the 1960s. In December 2007, she
said, the Labor Department investigated a commercial strip in Bushwick.
Two of the six groups now taking part in the pilot project — Make the
Road New York
and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union —
maintained a presence in the Bushwick area, staying in touch with
workers and employers, and the number of labor-law violations went
down, Ms. Smith said.

The Labor Department has documented numerous labor-law violations in
recent years, from restaurants and car washes to sites like the
Saratoga Race Course and the Erie County Fair.

Amy Carroll, a supervising lawyer at Make the Road New York, said:
“The Department of Labor can’t be in every nook and cranny of the city
and the state all the time. We want employers to know there are costs
for violating the law. They can’t get away with it.”