NEW YORK, N.Y.—Chanting “No mas robo de salarios,” more than 200 people rallied outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office Nov. 20 to protest his failure to sign a bill that would allow workers suing to recover stolen wages to take out “employee’s liens” on their employer’s property.
The bill, the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) Act, passed both houses of the Legislature in June. It passed the Senate by a margin wide enough to override a veto, but not the Assembly.
“Right now, the labor law is not enforceable,” JoAnn Lum of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association told LaborPress. By the time a wage-theft settlement is reached, she explained, employers accused of wage theft can hide their assets to avoid paying. “Lawyers are having workshops on how to do this.”
Jinming Vincent Cao, a former waiter at the Wu Liang Ye restaurant in Midtown and Joy Luck in Chinatown, told the rally that he had been paid $300 a month for working 70 hours a week. But when 26 workers won $1.8 million in back wages, they got nothing.
“This sweatshop boss transferred all the assets,” Cao said in English and Chinese, and the restaurant reopened under a new name. “They don’t even run away,” he added. “We see them walking around Chinatown.”
At the Indus Valley restaurant on the Upper West Side, delivery workers were paid less than the minimum wage for tipped workers, and “the boss was stealing our tips,” former deliveryman Solomon Perez told LaborPress, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. A group of about 10 workers sued, and won $700,000 for up to six years of back pay.
The owner changed the name of the restaurant to Manhattan Valley, and the workers only collected $110,000. The only reason they got even that, Perez says, was because the “supposed new owner” owed money to the old owner, so the judge had him pay it to the workers instead.
“The most important thing is that we want Governor Cuomo to sign into law the SWEAT Act,” he says.
“There were more than 900 bills that passed both houses at the end of session, and nearly 400 bills remain under review by Counsel’s Office and the Division of the Budget,” Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall responded. “It is our responsibility to ensure that the bills, as written, are responsible, enforceable and accomplish their intended purpose.”
“If the bill becomes law, it could have unintended negative consequences for employers operating in New York,” the “preventive labor relations” law firm Jackson Lewis wrote in June. “Of the handful of other states that already allow similar liens on employers, only one (Wisconsin) allows such liens based solely on allegations, rather than a finding of liability.”
A 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute estimated that in New York State, employers cheat 300,000 workers a year out of $965 million by paying them less than minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor says its Wage and Hour Division recovered “a record” total in the 2019 fiscal year of $322 million in pay owed to workers.
“We are not just victims of wage theft,” protest organizers said in an open letter to Gov. Cuomo. “We are workers who have stood up for our rights and taken a stand against our bosses who break the law. We have gone to the Department of Labor to file complaints, and we have sought help from community organizations and lawyers. But existing laws are weak and employers can easily hide and transfer their assets. More and more of us are not able to recover their wages and are only winning a piece of paper.”
A group of about 50 demonstrators crossed Third Avenue to deliver that letter to Cuomo’s office, but state troopers barred them from entering the building after the first few passed through the revolving door.
A city police officer told demonstrators on the plaza in front of the door that the governor’s office would send down a representative to discuss the issue, “but not if you’re on private property.”
The governor’s staff sent down a mailroom worker to take a manila envelope containing the letter.
The protest was the second one this week against Cuomo not signing labor legislation. On Nov. 18, school-bus workers led by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 held a rally urging him to sign a bill that would restore their “employee protection provisions.” That measure would mandate that when the city switches bus-service providers, the new contractor would be required to hire workers from the old one at the same pay and benefits, in order of seniority.
Former mayor Michael Bloomberg eliminated those protections in December 2012, setting off an unsuccessful strike by Local 1181. He claimed they cost too much and gave current contractors an illegally unfair advantage. Gov. Cuomo vetoed a bill to restore them in 2016.