Wage Theft: Protecting Workers and Holding Corporations Accountable

As Manhattan District Attorney, I will use the office to radically change Manhattan’s approach to tackling wage theft and protect workers’ rights.

I am running for Manhattan District Attorney to transform our approach to criminal justice. For too long we have maintained a two-tiered system of justice in which marginalized New Yorkers are punished with prison for their offenses, while the wealthy and the powerful face little to no consequences for the harm they cause. This dynamic extends to “wage theft”, the employer practice of illegally cheating workers, often undocumented workers of color, out of earned wages. This issue predates the pandemic, but recent events have only made it worse.

Luis and Juan¹ spent years making deliveries for a restaurant. When the business closed suddenly due to COVID, Luis and Juan were not notified, nor were they given their last two weeks of pay. When they finally tracked down the business owner, at a different property, he threatened them with arrest, which was a significant threat, given their undocumented status. I am now working with them on filing a complaint with the city Department of Consumer Affairs, but it could be months before their case is addressed.

Luis and Juan’s story is not unique. More than ever, workers are being denied the wages they are entitled to, at a time when this is most devastating. Grocery store workers, service-industry workers, and other low-paid employees are the people who have allowed New Yorkers to stay safe during the pandemic, sometimes at the expense of their own livelihoods. Paying these workers their due wages is the absolute minimum they deserve. Wage theft is a crisis originating long before the pandemic, and one which will continue after the pandemic, unless we take decisive action to end it.

Wage theft is rampant across both the country and New York City, costing American workers billions of dollars a year, perhaps as much as $50 billion.² The majority of these violations are experienced by low or minimum-wage workers, especially those who belong to already-marginalized groups and are especially vulnerable to exploitation: undocumented workers, female workers, and workers of color, especially Black and Latinx workers.³ Because the potential amount each worker seeks to recover is relatively small, workers are on their own to navigate complex legal pathways if they want justice.

This attack on workers must end now. Our plan to protect workers and tackle the crisis of wage theft includes seven proposals shaped by people directly impacted by this issue and other experts:

  1. Build a strong Wage Theft Unit at the Manhattan DA’s office: My office will hire and train additional lawyers, investigators, and community liaisons to expand efforts to combat wage theft. In addition to keeping a watchful eye on problematic companies, we will have dedicated investigation heads monitoring industries with histories of wage theft (like the service industry), and direct canvassers to build relationships with workers, unions and advocacy groups.
  2. Proactive, industry-wide investigations: Beginning with investigations in industries that are notorious for wage theft, we will root out wage theft and deter employers from continuing to violate the law. Each year we will announce a new industry of focus for affirmative investigations.
  3. Prioritize wage theft recovery: Our ultimate goal is to attain justice and equitable outcomes for workers, and this means ensuring that when employers are found guilty of theft, money is put back in the pockets of workers quickly.
  4. Partnerships with community-based groups: Marginalized workers understandably may have little faith in law enforcement to solve their problems. We will never refer anyone to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), like D.A. Vance has done, and we will make worker outcomes and voices our priority above all else.
  5. Enforce Existing Worker Protections, Including Minimum Wage: We will take action against employers who violate minimum wage regulations, and reach out to industries where the $15 wage is prevalent to ensure workers know that they have a supportive ally in law enforcement. We will also identify our office as an ally for freelancers and independent contractors, and remain in communication with groups representing freelancers about unique challenges they face in seeking economic justice.
  6. Name and Shame: Similar to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and his predecessors’ “worst landlord” list, we intend to make publicly available a list of the worst offenders of wage theft in New York - those employers which continue to violate the law time and time again. Beyond any legal action we can take, hopefully such a list will help inform consumer behavior.
  7. Support Legislation: Our office will support city and state legislation that protects workers’ rights. We are inspired by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s recent initiative to sue DoorDash for worker misclassification, and promise to pursue similar litigation if it becomes possible under New York law. We also support Senate Bill S8277B, which would tax billionaires to support undocumented workers.

We refuse to perpetuate the current system that is quick to hold individuals accountable but ignores the harm caused by corporations. The fight does not end with criminal prosecution, and our office will support both city and state legislation that advocate for workers’ protections and to hold employers accountable.

We urge readers to visit our full policy for a full enumeration of our wage theft proposals, including recently proposed bills that our campaign supports.

You can also read the campaign’s other policy positions, including our seven previous policy papers, at janosforda.com/issues.

Endnotes

[1] Names changed to protect their identities, given their undocumented status.

[2] “An Epidemic of Wage Theft Is Costing Workers Hundreds of Millions of Dollars a Year,” Economic Policy Institute, September 11, 2014, https://www.epi.org/files/2014/wage-theft.pdf (accessed December 26, 2019)

[3] Annette Bernhardt, James DeFilippis & Diana Polson, “Working Without Laws: A Survey of Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City, “ National Employment Law Project, 2010, https://s27147.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/WorkingWithoutLawsNYC.pdf (accessed December 28, 2019)

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Janos Marton

Criminal justice advocate. Democratic Candidate For Manhattan District Attorney.