LABOR DEPARTMENT INITIATIVE EMPOWERS ORDINARY PEOPLE TO JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST WAGE THEFT
New York Wage Watch, the Only One of its Kind in the Nation, to Roll Out in New York City and Long Island
Albany, NY (January 26, 2009) - At a press conference in New York City, State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith today announced the formation of New York Wage Watch, a new tool in the fight against labor law violations in New York State. New York Wage Watch will focus on a variety of illegal practices, jointly referred to as wage theft, including payment of subminimum wages; nonpayment of wages; failure to pay overtime; tip stealing; and other such violations.
Modeled in part after the Neighborhood Watch program, New York Wage Watch will help promote labor law compliance through formal partnerships between the New York State Labor Department and community groups. The effort will start with a pilot program with several groups in New York City and Long Island for the first six months, and then be opened up to interested groups from throughout the state.
The first model of its kind, New York Wage Watch will provide ordinary people with a formal and systematic role in the fight against wage theft. Participating groups will select a geographic zone for their efforts, and within that zone, they will participate in a range of activities aimed at improving labor law compliance, including holding know-your-rights training; providing employers with information about compliance; and distributing literature to workers in supermarkets, laundromats, nail salons, and other community settings. When they encounter workers facing serious violations of the law or employers with detailed questions about compliance, New York Wage Watch groups will have a designated point person for referrals in the Labor Department’s Division of Labor Standards, which enforces wage and hour laws. The Department will provide training and materials to participating groups.
“Just as no one wants to live in an area riddled with crime, nobody wants to live in a neighborhood where workers are paid sweatshop wages,” said Commissioner Smith. “New York Wage Watch will increase labor law compliance by giving regular people a formal role in creating lawful workplaces statewide, and thereby improving the quality of life in their communities. It will also help law-abiding employers, who struggle to compete with businesses that undercut them by violating the law. ”
In recent years, the Labor Department has uncovered widespread labor law violations in a broad range of industries and locations throughout the state. An industry-based investigation of car washes in 2008 revealed that over 78% of New York City car washes inspected were not paying minimum wage or overtime. Nearly half of 303 employers visited on joint enforcement sweeps in Buffalo, Albany, the Bronx, and Queens required follow up for wage and hour violations. The Labor Department found serious violations at ordinary stores, restaurants, and offices statewide, as well as at state icons like the Saratoga Race Course, where over a hundred backstretch workers interviewed reported a pattern of illegal wages, and at the Erie County Fair, where bathroom attendants were paid no wages and were even forced to give half of their tips to a subcontractor.
“These violations are far more common than many people realize, but they plague our communities and diminish the quality of life for New York’s workers,” said Commissioner Smith. “We are enforcing the law as creatively and aggressively as we can, but the government cannot do it alone. We need concerned members of the public to help raise awareness about wage theft, to educate workers and employers about the law, and to help serve as a bridge between our agency and workers who might be unlikely to come to us on their own.”
Over the past few years, the Department of Labor has forged informal partnerships with advocacy groups and grassroots organizations on behalf of workers. A more proactive approach by the Division of Labor Standards, combined with efforts of the newly created Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights, has resulted in more sustained and effective partnering. One such relationship, with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and Make the Road New York, led the Department to investigate a commercial strip in Bushwick, Brooklyn. During the course of this investigation, the Labor Department found $350,000 in wage underpayments were owed to 60 workers. In the ensuing weeks and months, the RWDSU and Make the Road New York maintained a presence in the area, talking with businesses and workers about labor law. A labor law seminar was also conducted for employers in the area. Labor law compliance appears to have increased in Bushwick as a result of this joint effort. New York Wage Watch aims to replicate the enhanced effectiveness resulting from the coordination of law enforcement efforts with ongoing presence and involvement of community members.
This pilot program will begin with a small number of groups who are already working on labor issues. Each group has referred a number of cases to the Department of Labor in recent years. The groups are Centro del Inmigrante in Staten Island; Chinese Staff and Workers' Association; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); Make the Road New York; United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500; and The Workplace Project in Long Island.
Next month, each of these groups will receive language-specific training from Department of Labor staff. The first trainings will be held on Saturday February 7 at the Murphy Center for Labor Studies in Manhattan, in English, Spanish and Chinese, and will cover basic labor laws affecting workers such as minimum wage, overtime and meal periods. The Department of Labor will also be providing multi-lingual outreach materials to each Wage Watch group to hand out to workers and businesses.
After a six-month pilot period with these groups, the Labor Department will begin seeking additional groups who wish to participate statewide. Each group should be a non-governmental, non-profit entity, such as a community group, religious organization, student group, labor union, business association, or neighborhood association. Groups must have at least six members and must select a geographic region to focus upon – this may be as small as several blocks in an urban setting or as large as several counties elsewhere. Groups need not have prior labor-related experience.
Stuart Appelbaum, President of the 100,000 member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said, “New York Wage Watch is labor law enforcement at the purest, most grassroots level. This program will allow unions, community groups and churches to engage in the fight against the exploitation of workers in our neighborhoods. It is critical that employers do not take advantage of workers and their families during these difficult economic times.”
Amy Carroll, Supervising Attorney for Workplace Rights at Make the Road New York said, “Wage theft is rampant in many low-wage industries and immigrant neighborhoods, in large part because workers are afraid to come forward and file a complaint when their rights are violated. New York Wage watch allows the State Department of Labor to partner with organizations, like Make the Road New York, that already have workers' trust. In our experience, community monitoring of employer conduct is critical to ensure that employers caught violating the law today actually pay their workers correctly tomorrow. Employers will be dramatically less likely to violate wage and hour law when they know that trained community members are on the ground as the eyes and ears of the DOL's wage enforcement units.”
Bruce W. Both, President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500, New York States Largest Grocery Workers Union said, “UFCW Local 1500 commends the New York State Department of Labor for its innovative approach to promote labor law compliance among New York State's employers. UFCW Local 1500 is excited to participate in the Wage Watch program, as we see it as both a creative yet fiscally efficient way to educate workers and employers about their labor rights and obligations during these difficult economic times. Our long history of working with the DOL, Commissioner Patricia Smith and her dedicated staff has taught us that grocery workers, especially Gourmet Grocery Workers, will greatly benefit from such a program. Workers in this industry have high rates of not being paid according to New York State Wage and Hour laws. UFCW Local 1500 looks forward to making Wage Watch a successful collaborative effort.”
Gonzalo Mercado, Director, El Centro del Inmigrante said, “El Centro del Inmigrante applauds the New York State Department of Labor for the creation of the Wage Watch Program. Thousands of workers every year are victims of wage and hour violations and this initiative is a great tool to help enforce the labor laws that most of the time are not known by the workers nor by their employers. Immigrant workers are the most exploited and most vulnerable and we look forward to collaborating in this endeavor.”
Nadia Marin-Molina, Executive Director of the Workplace Project said, "During this time of economic crisis, it is more important than ever that the wages of workers, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, are protected, so that workers can pay rent and feed their families. On Long Island, the Workplace Project has shown that, with education, organizing, and support, community members - day laborers, domestic workers, and factory workers, for example - are willing to stand up and fight exploitation on the job at great personal risk. The Wage Watch program will now allow us to link a trained community team to work closely with the New York State Department of Labor, so that employers will not be able to abuse workers with impunity. The Workplace Project is excited to participate in this innovative partnership with the DOL and looks forward to engaging many more community members to stop wage theft through this collaboration."
To find out what you can do to establish a New York Wage Watch group in your community, send an email to NewYorkWageWatch@labor.state.ny.us or call 1-888-52-LABOR.