New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced this week that his state’s new Anti-Retaliation Unit secured more than $68,000 in restitution payments for two victims of wage theft—a problem that many cities and states have focused on this year.
A probe of Pinnacle Holdings, one of New York’s largest landlords, found that the company attempted to illegally fire and evict Fernando Puerta and Mario Gil, who were provided with an illegal, unfurnished basement apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens, in exchange for working as porters. Neither ever received wages, according to the state.
When the Department of Labor ruled that back wages were owed to the two men, Pinnacle’s management moved to fire and evict them. The Anti-Retaliation Unit ordered Pinnacle Holdings not to terminate the men. The company agreed and put Puerta and Gil on its payroll.
In October 2015, Cuomo announced the creation of the Anti-Retaliation Unit with the goal of ending retaliation against workers who complain about wage theft, misclassification, or other rights protected by the New York labor law. The unit is a part of Cuomo’s Task Force to End Worker Exploitation, comprised of 12 state agencies. The task force has opened more than 450 cases that affected more than 2,000 workers since its launch in July.
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New York is among the states leading the charge in addressing wage theft, a persistent problem in the state. A 2014 study from the U.S. Department of Labor found that more than 300,000 wage and salary workers in California and New York are victims of wage theft. Between 3.5 and 6.5 percent of workers were paid less than the state or federal minimum wage, with lost wages in New York representing $20 million in lost income per week, according to the study.
The New York City Council announced this month that it is considering one of the country’s toughest wage theft policies, which would require businesses in New York City to provide freelance employees with contracts or face severe penalties, including jail time, if they don’t pay. The “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” will provide similar legal protections against wage theft as those offered to traditional employees, meaning employers who refuse to pay or who delay payment will face monetary damages, attorney’s fees, and civil penalties.
The task force was formed after the publication of a damning New York Times series about the working conditions in nail salons. The Times exposé focused on wage violations and ethnic caste systems, and made references to “immigrant workers” being “in the country illegally,” and the treatment of Hispanic manicurists’ “desperation” for money because of “the large debts owed to ‘coyotes’” who smuggled them across the border.
Cuomo’s task force does not outline how it will assist undocumented workers who are being exploited and who have been victims of wage theft. The task force’s website states, “New York offers a promise that our arms and hearts are open to those who come here to work and build a better future for themselves. Everyone deserves the full protection of the law regardless of immigration status. We will not tolerate worker exploitation, period.”
After the announcement that Puerta and Gil would receive restitution payments, New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said, “The state of New York protects its workers. Regardless of immigration status, income bracket, gender or race, worker exploitation and retaliation against those who speak out will not be tolerated in our state.”
Every year, 6.5 million undocumented workers in manufacturing, service, construction, restaurant, and agriculture sectors experience wage theft. This population is among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in America, according to the Workplace Fairness advocacy organization.
Undocumented workers are often victims of unpaid wages, dangerous conditions, and uncompensated workplace injuries, discrimination, and other labor law violations. Standing up for their rights routinely results in retaliation from employers, often in the form of threats of deportation.