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Know Your Rights
Subject: Civil Rights
Type: Media Coverage

A Hands-Off Labor Department Retreats From Wage Theft Enforcement

DEPARTMENT OF LABOR employees know Commissioner Roberta Reardon for her theatrical flair. In a glossy video newsletter, Reardon periodically sends to her staff, she flexes the performance skills she picked up in her past life as a longtime actor and first co-president of sag-aftra.

At the end of May, however, the commissioner missed a notable public speaking event. When state Senator Jessica Ramos held a hearing on wage theft enforcement, Reardon, the head of the primary state agency responsible for helping New Yorkers get the wages they’re owed from unwilling bosses, declined to show up.

The meeting Reardon missed came amid a steep decline in the dol’s efforts to recover unpaid wages. As Reardon told the legislature in 2020, the Labor Department recovered $320 million from 2011 to 2019 — an average of around $36 million a year. In 2022, it recovered just $25 million. So far this year, it has recovered under $12 million, and the department estimated it will bring in $20 million by the year’s end.

New York Focus interviewed six Labor Department staffers and former staffers, ranging from senior members to rank-and-file wage investigators, about the causes of the decline. They collectively described a severely understaffed wage theft division that never recovered from multiple pandemic-induced crises — and a leadership team whose priorities lie elsewhere.