Article and photo by Norm Smith
All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
One of CoFiA’s most important and challenging tasks is wage-theft resolution . 2014 was a busy and often successful year. Here is a review of some of these challenges.
Wage theft is understandable. Often the contractor who doesn’t pay hasn’t received payment himself or herself. Finding the contractor is a major challenge, and even if persuaded to pay, he or she may immediately go out of business.
One restaurant worker said his boss was named Ramon. Ramon was nowhere to be found, but knowing the restaurant was Indian we were able to locate him–a man named Ramesh. Ramesh claimed the worker left without notice so he withheld the last 6 days of his wages. When we pointed out that the NJ Department of Labor (DOL) does not recognize lack of notice as a justification for non-payment, he settled.
The DOL plays an important role. DOL policy states that even though it is illegal to hire an undocumented worker, it is even more illegal not to pay him or her. If an employer refuses to communicate with us or the worker, we help the worker file a case with the Department. Sometimes the Department’s investigation is all it takes to convince the employer to settle. Sometimes, however, there is a hearing, and sometimes a favorable judgment for the worker. That doesn’t mean he will get the money, but there may be partial payment.
Mr. A is a case in point. A skilled welder , he worked several years for a North Jersey construction company, but changed jobs after accumulating $13,000 in unpaid wages. He filed with the DOL and Wage Theft Committee members accompanied him to a hearing in Trenton, and helped negotiate an $8000 settlement, of which the contractor paid $5,000. CoFiA and the worker are still on the case, working with the county sheriff, the courts, and with banks to locate and extract the remaining $3,000.
Mr. D’s situation is similar. A contractor owed him $900, but denied knowing him when we called. So the case was filed with the DOL, which subpoenaed the contractor to show his employment records. He then admitted that he owed the money and sent $500 to the DOL, which forwarded the money to us to turn over to Mr. D. (Many workers do not have bank accounts, so our ability to cash checks for them is very valuable.)
Sometimes just the threat of DOL involvement will do the trick. Mr. E. worked without problems for a landscaper for several weeks, but then was not paid for three days. The contractor claimed that he was damaging tools and property. DOL rules are very clear that tool damage does not justify wage withholding. The contractor agreed to pay $100 (one day’s work). Since Mr. E. was not expecting anything he was delighted with the settlement.
Mr. M’s was a rare easy case. He said a contractor owed him $600, but was unable to provide more than the first name and cell number of the contractor. That was enough for us to make the call, and to convince the contractor to forward the money–which he did on January 7, 2015. All our cases should go this well!