The wage theft committee has been very busy over recent months and has had several successes in collecting unpaid wages for workers who came to us for assistance. Of some $38,338 outstanding claims, cash in the amount of $17,747 has been received and turned over to 18 workers. The least amount recovered during this period was $100, and the most was $3600, with others ranging from $400 to $1900.
Each incident has its own story. Five men who came to us because they were owed $8800 by a Palisades Park business agreed to file a claim with the New Jersey Department of Labor. After many months and many meetings and telephone conversations with the DOL, the claim was settled in their favor. However, DOL arranged for it to be paid by the errant employers in very small increments. To date only $997 has been paid, meaning each person has received a little less than $200, leaving a balance of $7840. We calculate that at this rate it will take more than five years to recover the funds!
Umscrupulous employers often threaten to notify immigration if a worker complains of wage theft. However, even if workers are undocumented, the law requires that anyone who hires a worker is legally obliged to pay what is promised. The Department of Labor does not notify immigration if a claim is filed, and if there seems to be credible evidence may send an investigator to review the case. Sometimes the investigation itself is enough to convince the employer to pay. In other situations the case goes to a hearing. CoFiA has collected on several of these, and others are pending. The biggest problem is forcing the employer to pay up even when the judgment is in the worker’s favor.
One committee member notified the sheriff in a case where there was a clear violation, and he put a lien on the employer’s bank accounts. Several hundred dollars was collected in this way. However, the money quickly disappeared from those accounts. According to the worker, the word on the street was that the errant employer moved his money to the Canary Islands! Not even CoFiA has that long a reach!
Two incidents had surprisingly positive outcomes. One worker informed us that he had not been paid by a restaurant in Englewood. On investigation, the committee found that the owner for whom he had worked had sold the restaurant. The new owner was very upset that there was this outstanding debt, and agreed to make it right—on the spot! So the worker received the $1600 due him, and we have a new friend in the owner of Rancho Maria Restaurant in Englewood!
Another happy story is of a claim against a landscaping sub-contractor for $1090. This required a Sherlock Holmes level of sleuthing by the committee, because as is often the case the claimant had very little information about the employer. Very often the worker is only given the first name of a contractor or a foreman, and there is no identification on the truck or the job site that will allow them to track down the person in charge. After innumerable phone calls the committee member tracked down the contractor himself, who, like the owner of Rancho Maria, was appalled that this practice was going on. He had already paid the sub-contractor and had no idea he was not paying the workers. He immediately made good on $500 of the claim and promises to pay the balance in short order.
The most complicated and most expensive situation to date involves a worker who was employed by a firm based in New York. We found a lawyer who was willing to take on the case, and he calculated that the firm owed the worker in excess of $25,000. From there the process became increasingly convoluted—that lawyer died just as the case was going to trial, and then the worker’s own father died, leaving him emotionally drained. Another lawyer from the firm took over, and a default judgment was won in US district court when the offending employer failed to show up for the court date. Now the issue is collection. The law firm turned it over to a collection agency, which made a few efforts and gave up. At the moment the process is in the hands of another collection agent, who is requesting a large sum of money up front before proceeding.
It has been a considerable education for our committee as well as for the workers who have been so abused. Justice delayed is truly denied!!