Stopping the Wage Thieves
When the New York Post starts foaming at the mouth about a new public policy, it’s a good sign that policymakers are on the right track. This time, the Post is hot and bothered about an innovative move by New York State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith to enlist citizens and community groups in educating employees and employers about workplace protections and detecting cases when employers are illegally cheating their workers out of pay – for example by paying less than the minimum wage or stealing tips. The pilot project is based on Neighborhood Watch programs aimed at reducing street crime. The focus on labor law enforcement makes it the first of its kind in the country.
The need for such creative labor law education and enforcement strategies is brought home by “Unregulated Work in the Global City,” a 2007 report by Dr. Annette Bernhardt and colleagues, then working at the Brennan Center for Justice. The intensive three year study of New York City workplaces and industries from supermarkets to construction found systemic law-breaking. In the authors’ words, New York has become:
“a city where jobs pay less than the minimum wage, and sometimes nothing at all; where employers do not pay overtime for 60-hour weeks, and deny meal breaks that are required by law; where vital health and safety regulations are routinely ignored, even after injuries occur; and where workers are subject to blatant discrimination, and retaliated against for speaking up or trying to organize. Our research suggests that unregulated work is not confined to isolated, short-lived cases of exploitation at the fringe of the city's economy. Instead, the report finds that the systematic violation of federal, state and local law is threatening to become a way of doing business in major low-wage industries.”
There’s only so much the New York State Department of Labor can do on its own against a culture of rampant violations. Even the Post avers that “No reasonable person objects to state efforts to fairly, fully enforce the law.” So why are they up in arms? “Honest businessmen,” the Post frets, will be held siege by community groups and unions threatening a Department of Labor investigation. But, as “Unregulated Work in the Global City” reveals, there are a lot of less-than-honest employers out there – or at least employers who need to better understand the laws protecting their employees, an education that the program is also designed to provide. So which is the greater risk: overzealous community groups calling the state DOL to look over someone’s books? Or all those yet undiscovered cases of restaurant delivery guys paid less than $2 an hour for an 80-hour work week?