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State government protects treatment, welfare of low-wage employees

Workplace violations are more severe and widespread in the low-wage labor market, according to new groundbreaking information released in a report compiled by the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project and the University of California, Los Angeles Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

The study polled more than 4,300 low-wage earners from a variety of industries — manufacturing, food service, child care, health care and construction, among others — in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. Results of the study, conducted in 2008, show that 26 percent of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior to the survey and 76 percent of those who worked more than 40 hours were not paid the legally required overtime rate. Also widely reported were meal break, workers’ compensation and pay stub violations, as well as tip theft by employers.

Among these low-wage workers, a large percentage reported employer retaliation for lodging complaints or fear of retaliation as a reason for not reporting their employers for these abuses. The report showed that one in five workers polled had complained to bosses or reported them to government agencies, and among them 43 percent suffered some form of illegal retaliation: firing, suspension, pay cuts or threats to call immigration authorities.

The results of this study are appalling. These illegal activities are not only unfair and undemocratic, but also hamper economic revival and growth by depriving hard-working people of the wages they have rightfully earned, further stagnating the economy.

Here in New York, where many of the workers polled live and work, we are taking great strides to protect workers’ rights. This year we passed legislation I supported that made several important changes on behalf of the state’s lowest-paid workers (Ch. 372 of 2009). The new law:

• allows the state Labor Department to bring actions against employers on behalf of employees for wage deficiencies and breach of contract damages,

• shifts the burden of proof from employees to employers for establishing that wage underpayments were not intentional,

• greatly increases the civil penalties associated with violations,

• broadens the wage enforcement statute to include partnerships and limited liability companies and

• adds anti-retaliatory provisions to the wage violation law.

Another new measure I supported requires employers to notify each employee at the time of hire of his or her regular and overtime pay rate and how it is calculated (Ch. 270 of 2009). Both houses of the state Legislature also passed legislation, awaiting the governor’s signature, that will increase protections for employees who report that their employer is engaged in illegal business activities (A.7144). I also supported legislation that passed the state Assembly with overwhelming support that would require a statement in every state procurement contract that no forced labor was used (A.470).

This year the Assembly also passed legislation, that I have sponsored for many years, to bolster support for farm and domestic workers. One measure enacts the Farmworkers’ Fair Labor Practices Act, which grants collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, overtime payment and unemployment benefits to farmworkers (A.1867). Another piece of legislation extends the same rights and privileges to domestic workers (A.1470).

We know all workers, regardless of race, gender or legal status, are at risk for workplace violations at the hands of their employers, though some groups are more vulnerable than others and low-income workers are among the most susceptible. Low-wage workers engage every day in the back-breaking, necessary and often thankless work that allows our communities to function.

It benefits us all to make sure these and all workers are equally protected under the law. I will continue working in the Assembly to ensure all of New York’s workers’ rights are fairly and equally protected under the law.

Catherine Nolan

State Assemblywoman

Ridgewood

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