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Taking a Bigger Bite Out of Wage Theft in the Garden State

Current law calls for payment of back wages and a fine of between $100 and $1,000 and/or between 10 and 90 days in jail if convicted on a first offense. Fines for subsequent offenses could be between $500 and $1,000 with up to 100 days in jail. Administrative penalties also could be assessed, according to the Department of Labor, of up to $250 for a first offense and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. Activists say businesses rarely face the stricter penalties.

Quijano first introduced her bill in 2011 in response to a report from the Immigrant’s Rights/International Human Rights Clinic at the Seton Hall University School of Law

The report documented what it called a “significant level of wage theft” by businesses that used day laborers, with 54 percent of those interviewed reporting being paid less than promised at least once in 2010, and 94 percent reporting not being paid overtime despite working more than 40 hours in a week, and 48 percent reporting not being paid at all at least once in the year. Wage loss, according to the report, exceeded $1,000 for the year for 14 percent of those interviewed and between $100 and $1,000 for 43 percent.

Quijano said she was disturbed by the report and sought to protect workers from being exploited. The bill does that not only by strengthening sanctions, she said, but also by making the process less intimidating by relying on community groups and local courts. The system, as it stands now, she said, “creates a whole underground market.”

“If you can get laborers to work for free, it is all profit,” she said. “The Legislature has to make sure we protect the most vulnerable of our society.”

More Data Needed

Michael Egenton, legislative director for the Chamber of Commerce, said that it is unclear that there is a widespread problem that requires changes to state or local laws. He said more data is needed and that surveys like those conducted by New Labor and the Seton Hall clinic are not adequate.

“I could do similar surveys and find this is a concern,” he said. “We need practical empirical data that says ‘here is what we are running up against and how we have to improve upon the current law and enhance the sanctions against employers.’”

He said legislative and local efforts like this create the wrong impression of employers in the state.

“The majority of them are good actors and want to be responsible employers and are doing the right thing,” he said. “I’m not oblivious and blind to the fact that there are people out there -- sure, there are there bad apples out there.

“But let’s take a look at the data statewide and see if this is really an ongoing pressing issue that needs to be addressed by our policy.”

And if there is a problem, he said, it needs to be addressed at the state level.

“I would rather see it on a statewide basis, so there is a level playing field, so that all municipalities, all jurisdictions are following the same standard,” he said.

Quijano, while applauding the local efforts, agrees that the issue must be addressed at the state level and that the discussion must include all of the stakeholders, including the business community.

“I applaud what New Brunswick and Princeton are doing in addressing something that is not being addressed by the state yet,” she said. “But it shouldn’t be patchwork. We have to make sure we are thorough and cast a broad net to make sure every individual (worker) has the ability and the safeguards in place to protect them.”

Local officials agree that state action is needed, but they also believe they have a responsibility to local residents and they are hoping that local action will in turn spur the state.

Rebecca Escobar, city council president in New Brunswick, said she hopes that the New Brunswick ordinance will be used as a model elsewhere and that “it does have a ripple effect,” especially because local ordinances cannot cover all employees. Temporary agencies, for instance, which employ many New Brunswick residents in warehouses along the NJ Turnpike, can only be regulated at the state level.

Rowe agreed.

“We need state legislation to really stamp out wage theft,” he said. “But our best attempt to do something with teeth is to do it at the municipal level while we wait for the state to do something on the state bill.”

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