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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

jose cruz
Jose 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 his employer.

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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 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

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#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

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#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

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#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

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#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.”

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