Every payday, thousands of New York workers are robbed of their wages. Each week, in New York City alone, more than $18 million is stolen by lawless employers from low wage workers.
That’s close to a billion dollars each year!
Is news of this crime wave splashed across the police blotter? Not a chance.
In fact, New York State labor law is so weak that even employers who get caught stealing from their workers often end up paying less than they would have had to pay if they had followed the law in the first place.
Indeed, unscrupulous employers currently build the low risk of getting caught, and the minuscule penalties required, into the cost of doing business.
Weak laws have led to nonpayment of minimum wage and overtime becoming the norm, not the exception, in many of the key industries in New York State, such as retail, restaurants, service, and residential construction.
Recent reports by the National Employment Law Project and the New York State Department of Labor show that the problem is reaching epidemic proportions.
Recently, state Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Carl Heastie said, "Enough is enough," and introduced The WageTheft Prevention Act, landmark legislation to create real consequences for lawless employers and protect the well-being of all New Yorkers. The legislation is quickly gathering momentum and support in Albany.
Rampant wage theft takes money away from families who earned it and desperately need it in these tough economic times, to spend on rent, food, school supplies and clothing. It stalls our economic recovery, too: Wage thieves benefit from an unfair competitive advantage over those businesses that do right by their employees and follow the law.
It also undermines our tax base. Studies show that nonpayment of minimum wage goes hand in hand with failure of employers to pay into the states’ workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance systems. The time has come for New York State to put an end to this crime spree.
Winning the fight against wage theft demands better tools than are currently provided under New York law. In states like New Mexico and Idaho, employers must pay back stolen wages plus 200% damages. In New York, damages are a paltry 25%.
Under New York’s prevailing wage law, employers who steal $25,000 in wages face felony prosecutions. But employers who steal even a million dollars in subminimum wages face, at most, a misdemeanor on the first prosecution.
Perhaps most problematic, even those employers who are found guilty of wage theft are often able to evade efforts to actually collect the money they owe. Tools from other portions of New York law, such as freezing asset transfers or creating a lien for wages on employers’ property, would keep the worst offenders on the hook for the wages they owe.
It’s time that New York became a leader in the nationwide fight against wage theft.
The Wage Theft Prevention Act would accomplish just that. Increased damages, stronger criminal penalties for egregious violations and better protections for whistleblowers would change the calculation of bad actors. New Yorkers could rest assured that a good day’s work would earn them a good day’s pay.
Andrew Friedman is co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that seeks to promote economic justice, equity and opportunity.