Wage theft is exploitation at its worst and, unfortunately, in New York it is a veritable crime wave.
Not surprisingly, most victims are the city’s most vulnerable residents: its low-wage and immigrant laborers.
The story of Luis Olivo, who for seven years worked at a Bronx supermarket without receiving a salary – is a perfect example of the outrageous abuses committed with impunity every day by dishonest employers.
"I worked at Fine Fare supermarket from 7:30a.m. until 9 p.m. with half an hour break, six days a week," said Olivo, 45, a Dominican immigrant who came to New York in 1990. "They never paid me anything; I only worked for tips. There were five baggers and Fine Fare never paid any of us."
Make the Road New York, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates Olivo is owed $200,000 in stolen wages and damages.
Olivo was one of several victimized workers who told their stories of abuse yesterday at a City Council hearing on a proposed resolution demanding the state Legislature pass the Wage Theft Prevention Act, and urged Gov. Paterson to sign it as soon as possible.
"What this resolution would do is to engage city government in telling the state that this is a significant problem for the city," said Andrew Friedman, of Make the Road New York.
His group is part of the coalition of low-income workers, small businesses, organized labor, non-profit and legal services providers working for passage of the bill this year.
"[The resolution] would tell the state this law is important for the exploited workers and the honest employers who want a level playing field, but also for the economy," added Friedman.
Different versions of the bill were approved this summer by the state Assembly, where it was sponsored by Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), and in the Senate, where its main sponsor was Diane Savino (D-S.I.).
The bill would increase penalties and tighten enforcement of the New York laws protecting workers – such as Olivo – from nonpayment and underpayment. It would also encourage employees to report violations and shield them when they blow the whistle. In addition, it provides mechanisms to collect judgments.
"What Fine Fare did is illegal: it’s called wage theft," Olivo, a member of Make the Road New York, told the Council members. "The same thing that happened to me happens to a lot of workers, but most people don’t want to say anything because they’re afraid they’ll lose their job. We need more protection to make it harder for employers to exploit their workers."
Another worker, Eudocio Alvarado, also found the courage to testify at the hearing with the help of Make the Road New York.
"I worked for seven years at Village Farm Grocery, a popular, 24-hour grocery store in the East Village," he said. "I worked 12 hours a day for six, often seven days a week. My starting pay was about $3.33 per hour and I was never given time-and-a-half for the over 40 hours of overtime that I worked every week."
Abuses like these are so widespread that the National Employment Law Project estimates a whopping $1 billion is stolen from city workers every year.
"New York can’t wait any longer for these critical reforms," said Amy Carroll, legal director of Make the Road New York.
Olivo put it this way: "The government of New York has the opportunity to do something that would benefit all workers in the state. We need this bill to be passed and signed into law this year. Working families deserve this support."