At a rally outside an Associated Supermarkets store in Sunnyside last Friday, Sergio Guzman,** a Latino immigrant, claimed he had not been compensated for his labor.
Guzman worked in the fish department at the market and said he received below minimum wage for the 60 hours a week that he worked.
When he tried to organize his coworkers to demand fair wages, he said management retaliated by firing them and threatening the remaining workers with similar fates if they insisted on claiming their wages.
Guzman joined protesters from nonprofit organizations New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York and workers from markets in Brooklyn to demand he be paid for his labor.
In the cold, protestors carrying signs which read: I work for a living, why dont I make a living? and Fair Pay Now! demonstrated on 44th Street and Greenpoint Avenue.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) showed up to voice his support for mistreated workers. Though this was the first he had heard of wage theft in his community, Obviously there is great fear that these practices are widespread, Van Bramer said.
Norman Frazier traveled from Brooklyn to lend his voice to the rally. I am here to support them not being mistreated, Frazier said. Retired after 32 years as a porter, he said he knew what it was like to work hard and not be able to get by. He said the problem was even worse in the immigrant community.
They are afraid to talk and I am here to be a voice for them today, Frazier said. We talk about problems in other places, but there are invisible sweatshops right here. I am concerned and I am shocked.
However, Ramon Duran, manager of the supermarket, said he did everything by the books. I pay by the law, I have the proof, he said, though he did not produce any documentation.
This is America and all people are equal and have equal rights, but I think this is not the right way to do things, he said regarding the protest.
Whether Duran is guilty of wage theft remains to be seen, but according to state Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island and Brooklyn), studies indicate that a large number of employees are earning less than state-mandated minimum wage and arent receiving the correct amount of overtime pay.
As a result, on Monday, Gov. Paterson signed the Wage Theft Protection Act into law. The measure increases penalties for employers who dont follow the law. Previously, fines for wage theft were so low that there was, according to Savino, a financial incentive to steal workers wages.
The National Employment Law Project estimates that more than $1 billion is stolen annually from city workers by unscrupulous employers.
At a May rally in Jackson Heights, responsible businesses complained that it was hard to compete with companies that cut costs by paying less than minimum wage.
The new law requires more stringent and transparent record keeping by employers. It increases the amount that can be recovered as damages in a suit for non-payment from 25 percent to 100 percent more than the lost wages and raises criminal penalties for failure to pay minimum wage to up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. It also strengthens protections for whistleblowers in cases involving wage violations.
**Sergio Guzman is a member of Make the Road New York (MRNY).