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No Pay No Way – Battling Wage Theft in Westchester County

April 13, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld

Executive Director, Dr. Ann Heekin with Board Members, Doreen Kushel, Chris Calabrese, Bob Mannis and Gonzalo Cruz

Port Chester, NY – The Don Bosco Community Center in Port Chester, NY has both humble beginnings and a rich history.  Instituted in 1928 by the Salesians of Don Bosco , a Roman Catholic religious order, the Center itself was constructed with the hands of what was then Port Chester’s largest Catholic community, Italians immigrants. Many of them were the day laborers of their era.

By the 1980’s the Center, which had, until then, catered primarily to the needs of the adult population, expanded its mission. It had opened a boys’ and girls’ club that was used by neighborhood children after school and on weekends. There was even a summer camp schedule available.

Then, about ten years ago, the mission of the Center broadened yet again. The nationwide phenomenon of day laborer recruitment was becoming increasingly evident in Port Chester. Men would gather on street corners or in parking lots at various locations where they would hope to find work. Village residents were not always comfortable with these impromptu meetings and potential workers had little or no protection from either the elements or unscrupulous employers.

So, Father Tim Flock, who at that time was the pastor of Holy Rosary Church, recognized a need in his community and stepped up to meet the challenge. He offered the use of the Center to the workers with the understanding that they would conduct themselves according to certain prescribed guidelines. The workers agreed willingly and the new project was under way. A funding grant was secured through Catholic Campaign for Human Development and a 501C-3 was formed. By any metric, the project has been a huge success.

Today, the Don Bosco Community Center, in addition to operating a kitchen that provides rolls and coffee in the morning and nutritious meals at midday, runs a food bank and  also manages to recycle good, usable clothing that has been donated. But while all this charitable work is worthy and practical on a day to day basis, the Center’s Executive Director, Doctor Ann Heekin, and her all volunteer board of directors are much more given to a philosophy of empowerment. For them, teaching people to fish is far more helpful, in the long run, than doling out fish. Thus, the progress that has been made with Don Bosco Workers Inc.

The Director of Don Bosco Workers Inc. is Gonzalo Cruz, an energetic and efficient man who is understandably proud of what he and his colleagues have managed to accomplish. If one were to reach for one word to describe the process that takes place on any given morning, that word would be organized.  Workers are no longer isolated. They join Don Bosco Workers Inc., pay a small initiation fee and become members with membership cards that also serve as photo IDs. They list their skills which are then recorded into a data base which is meticulously maintained by DBW staff member, Perla Zuniga.

Then members assemble each morning and sign a list indicating that they are prepared to work. Wage rates have already been established. Landscaping and demolition jobs may command$15/hr., while light carpentry $20, and specialty services such as masonry or ceramic tile work may fetch as high as $25. Not all DBW are tradesmen, nor are they all male. Custodial and restaurant workers are also members, many of whom are female. A low water mark of

$120/day for an 8 hr. shift has been established and so ensures that it does not undercut the hard work of those who waged the “fight for fifteen.” Potential employers must come to the Center to do their recruitment. They then explain the nature of the work they want performed and agree in writing to the wage agreements that have been set and leave their pertinent contact information. Finally, members may avail themselves of ESL classes, safety training and basic labor law seminars.

If this mode of operation sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps it is because it so closely mirrors the operation of local union halls. Just as local unions are affiliated with their Internationals, the DBW Inc. is in turn affiliated with its umbrella organization, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). This resemblance is no mere coincidence.

Since 2006, the AFL-CIO has been strengthening its relationship with worker centers. Many in Organized Labor have begun to view the reality of day laborers not so much as a threat from an outside entity, but more the result of a divide and conquer strategy used by unethical employers who increase profits, not by fair competition, but by capitalizing on a race to the bottom mentality. This has prompted the AFL-CIO  to enter into partnership with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the two organizations have pledged to work together on state and local enforcement of rights, worker protections in areas including wage and hour laws,health and safety regulations, immigrants’ rights and employee misclassification, as well as immigration reform.

A more recent, and perhaps the most impressive of these new alliances is the commitment by Local 1103 of the Communication Workers of America to partner with the DBW Inc. in a new initiative entitled NO PAY NO WAY. For as effective as the Worker Center has been, it has not eradicated the presence of those who exploit day laborers in a variety of ways. At times  shady contractors may renege on paying the rate of wages that they had initially agreed to, or refuse to pay overtime rates for well past an eight hour day. There have even been several instances when an employer would contract out a full week’s work and then simply not appear with pay
packets on the final day.

The recourses available to workers entail a long an arduous process as Gonzalo Cruz explained. First, interviews must be held so that facts are established and stories can be corroborated, either by other victims or witnesses.There are appearances that must be made at small claims courts in either Port Chester or White Plains. There are often lengthy delays in that process, and even with a favorable ruling, there is often difficulty seeing that the ruling is enforced. Forms must be downloaded from the NYS Department of Labor’s Website, completed and mailed to Albany, case numbers assigned and investigations launched.

This is the Herculean task that NO PAY NO WAY has taken on, and has done an admirable job of pursuing. To date, thanks to the NPNW’s  efforts and the strong support of NYS Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, five Port Chester, NY workers have recovered $47,000 in a wage theft case against their employer, Alisa's Food and More, In addition, their educational campaign and outreach to small local businesses  have caused dozens of Port Chester businesses to take the "No Pay No Way" pledge promising to pay their workers the wages they have earned.  

But not all worker struggles have storybook endings, so a push for legislation that will accelerate the process by which wage theft claims are handled is currently under way.  NO WAY NO PAY uncovered existing legislation in Illinois and enlisted the aid of volunteers from among the ranks

of Pace Law School students to draft similar legislation suitable for use in New York. They have also secured the support of NY State Senator, George Latimer to champion that legislation. (He had already worked hard to pass A10163 Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2010) Despite all this good traction, the work is far from complete.

But, those engaged in the struggle are all committed, resourceful and confident. For Ann Heekin, President of DBW, Inc., what is necessary is to redefine wage theft as a whole community problem. “Historically,” she said, “wage theft has been seen as an immigrant
problem rather than a community one. The reality is that wage theft reduces spending in the local economy, makes responsible businesses less competitive to ones who do not follow the rules, and places unnecessary strain on emergency social services that cost taxpayers.”

Kevin Shiel, President of CWA 1103 is also painfully aware of how detrimental wage theft can be for all of us. He stated, “Partnering on worker justice issues with the Don Bosco Workers, Inc. is a natural fit for our Union and it is the right thing to do. Our economy and the worker population face enormous challenges and we must respond to these needs and help the next wave of workers in the same manner that those before us help this generation.”

Wage theft has long been a nearly insurmountable obstacle for many in our economy. But if the current trend continues, it will soon be, at least in Westchester County, a thing of the past.

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