Work Without Wages: Helping Immigrants Fight Unscrupulous Bosses
New Labor advocates for workers and lobbies local governments to pass ordinances preventing wage theft. It’s taking its fight to the state government as well
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Working without being paid for your labor isn’t just disheartening, it can be devastating -- especially for those who are living paycheck to paycheck and need the money just to survive. The situation is even more disturbing during holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, a celebration of American bounty.
It’s a situation that a number of legal and undocumented immigrants find themselves in, shortchanged on their paychecks by unscrupulous bosses who think they can get away with the deception because newcomers to this country are less likely to complain or have access to legal help.
New Labor, a 15-year-old organization that advocates for immigrant workers in the state, is working to eliminate this problem. Along with other groups it has been organizing workers and taking their cause to local and state governments years. Their goal is to pass local ordinances designed to give workers extra leverage when dealing with employers who fail to pay wages.
Five towns -- New Brunswick, Princeton, Highland Park, Newark, and Jersey City -- have passed versions of the local ordinances, but workers say more needs to be done at the state level. Legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano would strengthen state penalties, but has not been heard in committee and is expected to be reintroduced after the new Assembly reconvenes in January.
#wageswithoutwork 1. Irene Lopez was a victim of wage theft. The New Brunswick resident and mother of three had worked at a local Mexican restaurant in the kitchen until she became ill in 2012 and had to stop working. Her employer had been shorting her paychecks, sometimes not paying overtime and other time by only giving her half of what she was owed. She had been working 13 to 14 hours a day six days a week, which she said was a hardship. With two kids in daycare (the third was in afterschool care) costing $120 a week, she needed the extra wages. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 2. Irene Lopez filed with the state and received a judgment in her favor, which required her former employer to pay back about $10,000 in unpaid wages monthly over the course of a year. After making sporadic payments for several months, her former employer reneged, even though he still owed $5,600. New Labor stepped in and, after a protest in front of the business in 2014 in 30-degree weather and the threatened use of the New Brunswick wage-theft ordinance, Lopez was finally paid. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 3. Irene Lopez remains out of work -- she is caring for a sick child who is often hospitalized -- and lives on child support from her children’s father. She often finds herself having to choose among her expenses, paying some when they are due and leaving others for later. Christmas makes it more difficult, she says, especially with three children. But having the back wages helps. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 4. Irene Lopez’ story is not unusual, says Louis Kimmel, director of New Labor, a 15-year-old organization that advocates on wage and other issues for immigrant workers in the state. It is difficult to estimate the number of victims of wage theft, but it can hit workers at all socio-economic levels, though most victims work in construction, landscaping, restaurants, warehousing, and janitorial services. // New Labor, which is based in New Brunswick and has offices in Lakewood and Newark, has been organizing caravans in recent years that mix general calls to pass local wage-theft ordinances with picketing of businesses that have been found by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to be in violation of wage rules. The caravans usually start in Lakewood, move to New Brunswick and conclude in Newark. #New Jersey
#wageswithoutwork 5. The goal of the caravans is to call attention to individual employers, like the Dominican/Mexican restaurant La Cabanita in New Brunswick, where New Labor picketed on November 18 to protest the business's failure to pay more than $11,000 in unpaid wages. The protests also are designed to generate support for more local laws and state-wide legislation like those in New Brunswick, Princeton, Highland Park, Newark, and Jersey City. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 6. New Brunswick, where La Cabanita is located, issues local licenses for most businesses. The city’s wage-theft ordinance allows the City Council to strip a business of its local, general business license -- forcing it to close -- if the state issues a wage judgment against it and the business fails to follow through on the ruling. The ordinances in Highland Park, Newark, and Jersey City are similar. Princeton’s ordinance only requires landscapers to register with the town in exchange for a Better Business Bureau-like certification. Landscape firms that violate the ordinance can lose that certification. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 7.Activists say the New Brunswick ordinance has been a success, even though no licenses have been canceled. The ordinance, says Louis Kimmel of New Labor (pictured with Reynalda Cruz), offers leverage to workers, an additional way to compel businesses to follow the law. // “There are already laws that say you can’t steal from workers,” he said. “The Fair Labor Act, the Bible. There is a moral basis and a legal basis for this, but people don’t always follow through. This is another tool to help people collect.” // The goal, says Kimmel, is both to convince more municipalities to enact local ordinances and to get something passed statewide that addresses the loopholes the current piecemeal approach creates. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 8. Assembly members Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth) and Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) introduced state legislation in early 2014, but it has not been posted for a hearing or a vote, and it is not expected to be posted before the end of the session in January. The Quijano-Johnson bill would have increased penalties and allowed for criminal prosecution and fines when wages are stolen. It also include provisions that would have allowed the state to suspend business and other licenses and would require audits of businesses. // Quijano said she is meeting with the stakeholders -- advocates for workers and business -- and expects to unveil a new bill early in the next legislative session. She would not comment on specifics and would only say that the bill likely would focus on civil penalties, rather than criminal ones. // “I’m committed to it,” she said. It’s just that sometimes have to sit a while.” #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 9. Business groups have been the most vocal critics of the local laws. They call them unnecessary and say they unintentionally can hurt workers by increasing costs for local businesses. They also have said that the patchwork of rules created by local laws with varying requirements create administrative problems for businesses. They also are critical of additional statewide safeguards, saying that they will increase costs to small businesses. They say that, if there is a problem with wage theft, then the state needs to do a better job of enforcing current rules. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 10. Workers who are organizing with New Labor say businesses often short worker wages because current state rules are not strong enough and because workers are afraid to file complaints with the state. Under current law, workers can take their case to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which often sides with workers. The problem is that LWD does not have the resources to enforce these rulings properly, they say. // An additional problem, says New Labor organizer Reynalda Cruz, is that many of those who are victimized are immigrants – both legal and undocumented – because employers know those workers are less likely to fight back. What those workers often do not understand, she said, is that state law does not differentiate based on immigration status. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 11. Jose Cruz worked nine months at La Cabanita, the New Brunswick restaurant picketed by New Labor earlier this month. He would put in 29 hours of unpaid overtime per week, he said. Cruz, a Dominican immigrant who moved to New Brunswick 12 years ago, filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor and won an $11,000 judgment against the restaurant, which is supposed to pay him monthly. He has yet to receive a check, he says. La Cabanita is due to make its first payment on December 1. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 12. The withholding of his wages created serious hardship for Jose Cruz, who is in the United States legally. “I suffered a lot,” he says through an interpreter. “I have been lacking in certain things and cutting back,” including clothes and medicine. He had injured his hands and was prescribed medication, which he could not afford. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 13. Eulalio Ramirez also was a victim of wage theft, but he lacks the leverage that Irene Lopez and Jose Cruz have. Ramirez, who lives in New Brunswick, worked at a Princeton restaurant with his brother. Both of them were denied overtime pay and have won judgments from the state. The restaurant, however, has refused to comply and the Ramirez brothers are still waiting for their back pay. // Princeton passed a wage-theft law in 2014, but it only covers landscapers, which has left Ramirez without the additional hammer provided by the New Brunswick law. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 14. Eulalio Ramirez and his brother were fired during the winter without notice, which did not give them time to save and prepare. Even if they had time, Ramirez said, he was not earning enough to put money aside. “We would work a lot and have to suck it up and work the overtime and we would have to suck it up to (the boss’s) character.” #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 15. Princeton officials have said they will consider expanding the law to cover other businesses. John Heilner, who chairs the Immigration Subcommittee of the Princeton Human Services Subcommittee, said the municipal attorney is investigating options, but the lack of a local general business license -- something that New Brunswick has -- complicates the effort. // “At this point have to take each industry one at a time,” he said. “As I understand it, it is complicated from a legal standpoint. We have to go into regulations that pertain to each industry -- restaurants and construction, which are the two main (areas) where we are lacking local protections -- to find a way to put in language that strengthens local enforcement of state and federal wage and hour laws.” // Landscapers, he said, are required to register in Princeton, which gives them various benefits, including a municipal stamp of approval that essentially says “consumers are working with a registered outfit that will be following the rules.”
#wageswithoutwork 16. Warehouse workers who are contracted through temporary agencies also are not covered by the local laws, because they are considered joint employees. They are paid by the agencies, but their day-to-day work environment is determined by the warehouses. Those employees are covered by state and federal rules, but as with workers like Irene Cruz, Jose Cruz, and Eulilio Ramirez, they are victimized by relatively weak enforcement. // Louis Kimmel, of New Labor, says the arrangement allows both sides to escape responsibility. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 17. The differences in local rules create the need for a statewide approach, say activists like Lou Kimmel and Reynalda Cruz (pictured playing the drum). They are hoping to build momentum for a state law by passing the local ordinances. But they say that the lack of a statewide rule leaves workers like Eulalio Ramirez vulnerable. #NewJersey
#wageswithoutwork 18. Reynalda Cruz, an organizer with New Labor, says legislation covering all workers in New Jersey is key because the current patchwork leaves too many loopholes and too many workers without protection. // “People who work for agencies are not covered” in New Brunswick, she says, because “they live in New Brunswick and work elsewhere.” // She says it shouldn’t matter where you live or work, “these are stolen salaries.”