March 18, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Despite having thousands of unresolved cases of proported wage theft on its hands, the Department of Labor [DOL] says it has kicked its investigations into high gear and doesn’t need additional resources to knock out the backlog – thank you very much. But advocates for struggling workers who have waited months, and even years to recover filched money, say that the state’s approach is still off-base.
“We are aware that they are making efforts to work though cases faster – and we think that’s fantastic,” said Hilary Klein, spokesperson for Make the Road New York [MRNY]. “Our concern is that some of the ways that they’re moving though cases faster, actually also negatively impacts workers.”
According to MRNY, an advocacy group working on behalf of Latino and working class communities throughout the city, there were some 14,000 open cases of wage theft pending before the DOL as of July, 2013. The state argues that the number is actually half that.
In any event, worker advocates contends that the DOL’s decision to dig into wage theft claims going back three years instead of six – and restricting investigations to individual cases rather than the greater workplace, is doing claimants a disservice.
“Our feeling is that this is not the way to reduce the number of open cases,” Klein said.
The National Law Employment Project has found that in New York City alone, bad bosses rob employees of almost $1 billion annually. Victimized employees work in a variety of low-wage industries ranging from car washes to restaurants.
Alphonso David, deputy secretary for Civil Rights, told LaborPress that the majority of wage theft cases are being processed in less than six months, with almost 75 percent of 2012’s cases successfully investigated.
“Our objective is to get back recovery for plaintiffs as quickly as possible,” David said.
Assurances like that, however, don’t do much to quell the frustration that workers like Celina Alvarez feel.
In 2012, Alvarez worked at El Poblano Restaurant, located at 86-22 Whitney Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. Last April, the restaurant worker filed a wage theft complaint with the DOL claiming that the restaurant owes her several thousand dollars in unpaid wages. El Poblano Restaurant has since shut down – but Alvarez has yet to recover any money.
"I have now been waiting for over 11 months to recover my wages, but I have not had any luck,” Alvarez said in a statement following a demonstration held outside El Poblano Restaurant on March 12. ”The owners who stole my wages have closed the doors to El Poblano Restaurant where I worked, and other restaurants they owned. This jeopardizes my chances of ever collecting the money I am owed.”
Both MRNY and the DOL agree that the number of reported wage theft cases has remained fairly constant over the last several years.
But so has the number of investigators.
The DOL presently employs 112 investigators to dig into the thousands of wage theft cases filed across the state.
David maintains that those levels are wholly appropriate.
“Basically, it has been that way for the last seven to 10 years,” David said. “They had 111 investigators in 2007. And in 2009, they had 103. Today they have 112. So, they certainly have significant investigators to investigate their cases. In fact, they have more investigators than any other state in the country – other than California – which has twice the population. So, they have sufficient investigators to process the cases.”
Not everyone in government agrees, however.
"I support increasing resources for the New York State Department of Labor," City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights, Elmhurst) said last week. "Many hard working New Yorkers like Celina Alvarez who have been victims of wage theft never get their cases resolved. It would be a huge boost to New York's work force if the DOL had a larger staff. Then it could resolve cases more quickly and reduce the chance that the owner of the offending business changes or closes the establishment making the recovery of the stolen wages increasingly difficult."
Be that as it may, worker advocates insist that bolstering the DOL’s team of investigators is only one of the recommendations they have to help combat wage theft.
“Having more resources for the DOL is one of our proposals,” Klein said. “But we’re happy to sit down with them and brainstorm about other ways of working through the number of open cases without negatively impacting workers who have already been hurt by wage theft.”
Until dishonest business owners feel the pain in their own pocketbooks, worker advocates fear that little will change.
“The heart of the problem is that it’s cheaper for unscrupulous businesses willing to steal wages from their own employees,” Klein said. “They know that they can basically get away with it.”
The Attorney General’s Office has hit back at theiving businessowners – recently leveraging a $4 million judgement against car wash kingpin John Lage and company. Worker advocates maintain that decisive action like that – along with increased fines – are precisely what's needed to get the attention of cheating business owners.
"For years, I have dealt with the abuse of wage theft,” said Claudia Leon, a MRNY member and former employee at Aqui Bella Puebla Restaurant, also in Jackson Heights. “Many of us have stayed quiet for fear that we may lose our jobs or not be heard – but no employer in any industry should be allowed to get away with this.”