Newark moving closer to enacting law protecting victims of 'wage theft'

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on June 25, 2015

Norlan Trejo stands at an intersection in the Ironbound section of Newark last week. Trejo is among a group of city workers who say they have had their wages stolen by employers in the past. 

 

NEWARK - When Norlan Trejo arrived in Newark in 2012, he was thrilled to find a job almost immediately.

The work building a hotel for a local contractor was hard, and the hours long – but he was thrilled to be sending money home to family in his native Honduras, with enough left over to support himself living in the city's Ironbound district.

After several months, however, the contractor began to delay his weekly paychecks. The money was usually handed over on Tuesdays. But Tuesday soon became Wednesday, and Wednesday became Thursday.

Finally, the money stopped coming at all.

Trejo and his co-workers continued working, remaining hopeful that the money would eventually come through. But after about a month, he and his co-workers cut their losses, leaving behind thousands of dollars each that they would never recover.

"It was really hard for me because you're not here to support yourself, you're supporting your family back home. At the end there were 10 of us and none of us were able to recover the money," he said through an interpreter during an interview last week.

Trejo and other labor advocates say the problem, termed "wage theft", is an unfortunate fact of everyday life for recent immigrants and other low-wage workers in Newark and beyond, regularly leaving them with nothing to show for countless hours on the job.

But now, Newark officials are moving toward passing a new ordinance designed to help Trejo and other at-risk workers from losing their hard-earned wages. The measure must still be approved at a final vote, though seven of nine councilors present at a meeting last week all said they intended to see it become law.

"No business has the right to steal wages that their employees have earned through their own hard work," said At-Large Councilman Eddie Osborne, a co-sponsor of the resolution.

The ordinance would allow city authorities to deny a license to employers found liable for any incident of wage theft. Employers who fail to comply with penalties imposed by a state or federal authority related to a wage theft case, or found to have committed particularly severe violations could also have their licenses either suspended or revoked.

North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., who co-sponsored the bill with Osborne, said the resolution would create some of the strongest provisions in the state to ensure workers are being properly compensated.

"This sends a very strong message to the business community here in city of Newark that wage theft will not be tolerated in our city," he said.

Though not often discussed, many familiar with the issue of wage theft say it is disturbingly prevalent in sectors of the work force that tend to attract recent immigrants or the working poor.

Researchers with Seton Hall University School of Law interviewed dozens of day laborers working in the Ironbound for a 2010 study, 96 percent of whom reported either being underpaid or not paid at all on at least one occasion. Of those surveyed, 88 percent also reported not being paid for overtime when working more than 40 hours in a week.

A total of 13 opted to file complaints with either the state Department of Labor or in small claims court, though just three succeeded in recovering any of their lost wages, according to the study.

Victims in Newark often find allies in organizations such as New Labor, which helps them weigh their options for recovering their lost wages.

Marien Casillas Pavellon, a volunteer with the group, says many victims end up pursuing cases with the state or federal Department of Labor or small claims court, though the attempts are often fruitless.

Even when employers are found guilty, mechanisms for repayment are largely toothless, she said, and many workers lack precise information about their bosses – which is often by design.

"If you're in the low wage sector of economy...you need that job. If you start asking questions, you won't get that job," she said.

More often, New Labor pursues a less bureaucratic form of recourse, which it calls "direct action." A group of victimized workers band together with a few volunteers, and march to the home of a contractor or other employer to demand they be paid.

Casillas Pavellon says the method has helped victims in towns such as Newark and Lakewood recover more than $500,000 over the last two years, though they're hopeful new laws might make the confrontations less common.

If the Newark ordinance is passed, the city would join just a handful of other communities in New Jersey with a wage theft law on its books, including New Brunswick and Princeton. Jersey City is also working toward passing a similar ordinance.

But for the community in the Ironbound and the rest of Newark, it will mean much more than dollars and cents for the many victims of wage theft.

Jonass Mendoza, a 37-year-old Honduras native who has been advocating for it with New Labor, said it would provide him and others with a new sense of security and protection as they attempt to make their living.

"I've been here for a long period of time. Now I know my rights. It's more for the people who don't know what their rights are," he said.

"A lot of people are going through this. A lot of people are not getting paid. If the ordinance passes, it's like somebody is backing you up."

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