We must protect against workers losing the money they’re owed, assemblywoman says

Posted Jul 24, 2019

By Annette Quijano

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano says the wage theft bill she sponsored will help level the playing field for low-income workers and protect workers’ rights to fair and full legal wages.

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No one should be withheld one penny of the wages to which they are legally entitled. Every individual employed in New Jersey deserves the legal wages their employer has agreed to pay them, including overtime. In order for New Jersey to prosper in the ways we know are possible, we must put our workers first, and make sure they know we have their backs.

Wage theft is a practice that often affects some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers. It can take many forms from underpaying wages, penalty rates, as well as misapplying overtime rates and commissions. It can also affect entitlements such as sick leave, requiring workers to repay money earned, and include unauthorized deductions from employee pay. However, and whenever it occurs, it takes money out of the pockets of our hardest working residents who often have more than one job to make ends meet.

The U.S. Department of Labor says the average wage theft amounts, andit is theft, to $1,150. What can $1,150 buy? The U.S. Department of Labor estimates it can provide five plus weeks of food; or one plus months of rent; or one plus months of utilities or five plus weeks of childcare.

What does an employee in this situation stand to lose? An employee can lose their home or not be able to pay for their medicine or have to take off from work to care for their child because they can’t pay for childcare, which may force them to lose more of their income and their job. It can become a vicious cycle.

This is why the wage theft legislation (A-2903), which has been passed by the Legislature and sits on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, I’ve sponsored is so important. It will help level the playing field for low-income workers. Above all else, it will protect workers’ rights to fair and full legal wages. Employers in New Jersey should be held to a higher standard to treat their employees with the decency and legality they deserve.

The bill creates several avenues through which an employee can address instances of wage theft. In addition to the existing option whereby authorities can choose to bring criminal charges against employers engaging in wage theft, the legislation creates an individual civil cause of action allowing a worker to file a wage theft complaint in Superior Court or in small claims court if the amount in question falls below $3,000.

Many of the workers who are the victims of wage theft are unlikely to have the resources to hire an attorney, so we also establish, under the bill, a way for an employee to file his or her complaint through the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. To discourage the practice of wage theft, verified wage theft complaints can lead to enhanced fines and penalties, and could also trigger an audit of the employer by the state labor commissioner.

Again, this is about the worker. It’s about the father who works the night shift in a warehouse for minimum wage and agrees to overtime to earn a little more in his paycheck for his family. It will help the young college student who picks up extra shifts waitressing to pay for her school books and supplies. This concerns New Jersey families working to climb one more rung up the economic ladder.

I want to be clear. This will not harm small businesses that play by the rules. Penalties are not mandatory for the first offense. Safe harbors, so to speak, were intentionally built into this legislation to account for honest mistakes. The intent is to hold only the bad actors accountable for taking advantage of New Jersey’s workforce.

Workers across New Jersey deserve legislation that works in their best interest. This bill does just that. Employees in New Jersey are to be treated fairly and legally, with absolutely no exceptions.

 

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano represents the 20th Legislative District and serves as the deputy majority leader.

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