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Wage theft is on the rise on eastern Long Island

Tu Prensa Local

Aurora is a resident of Long Island who, like many others, was a victim of wage theft this summer. These are not traditional thieves grabbing money, but rather an increasingly common practice in the region, in which employers refrain from paying their employees for the work performed.

Aurora, who does not want to reveal her identity while her case progresses in court, said she started working in June for a house cleaning company, led by a Latinx woman. The job was a blessing because Aurora is a single mother.

“We agreed that she was going to pay me per hour and also for each house that was cleaned. I was working for about a month, I had approximately seven employees with me,” Aurora said. “We agreed on $20 an hour, and the job was cleaning houses in the Hamptons, because we were going to Water Mill, Southampton, Montauk and Sag Harbor.”

According to Aurora's story, at first everything was going relatively well in the new job. During the first week, her employer complied with the payment of the agreed salary, although she always had to put some pressure on her to pay. Aurora also noticed some situations that affected other colleagues, and she began to get worried.

“One by one, the girls left and I had no idea why," Aurora said. "She just told me 'they don't want to work, they are irresponsible, they say it's very tiring.'"

With the departure of the oldest worker, Aurora ended up in charge of the entire work group.

"She told me 'do you want to take charge?' I told her it would depend on how much she paid me,'" Aurora continued. "'Don't be mean, help me,' she told me. So I agreed to work like that. She didn't raise my salary, but she told me that later we could talk about raising it.”

As the days went by, two more workers left and only three women remained with the burden of all the group's work, in total there were about 30 houses that they had to clean.

“We always worked under pressure, 'run, move, hurry.' She started giving me more work. I told her that because of my daughter, I couldn't stay too late, because unfortunately I am alone, so I don't have anyone who can take care of my girl," Aurora said. "She told me here she works until Sundays and on Sundays I pay them $25."

Aurora said her employer didn't give them time for lunch and that summer days went from dawn to dusk. However, the straw that broke her was when she decided to file a claim for back wages — she received threats from her employer.

“She told me that she wasn't going to pay me, that she didn't care if we took her to court because she was going to say that we were leaving our jobs behind and that's why we weren't going to get a job here again,” she said.

Desperate and overwhelmed by debt, she decided to ask for help at OLA of Eastern Long Island, where other women have coincidentally gone with similar complaints about the same employer.

“We have five complaints against the same person, who is used to hiring people and telling them we are going to clean my houses, and now they pay me the rent and I will pay them,” said Erika Padilla, legal advisor of OLA of Eastern Long Island. “You need to work, you need your money, and I imagine that they think that they are going to receive everything together. They never imagined that they are not going to be paid at all.”

According to OLA, wage theft is a more common practice than people imagine, but this year the organization has seen a considerable increase in cases.

"I was surprised because wage theft cases usually start to arrive in September, and we were in the middle of the summer and they started to arrive," Padilla said. "Four cases of wage theft in the summer is rare. Usually the people work, and when they see that they are not paid, it is at the end of September that they start calling to ask what they can do."

Currently, OLA has 17 active cases, which the organization is advising in the search for alternatives to get their employers to pay them the money they earned. The worst thing is that the organization knows that there are many more cases of people who do not dare to report.

“They prefer to remain silent for fear of threats from employers. To tell you a case, the person who employed someone told him, 'You just arrived, if you keep bothering me asking for payment, I will call immigration,'" Padilla said. “And sadly we are not talking about 100% employers from here, of all the cases we have at this moment 60% of the employers are Hispanic, Latino.”

The law protects workers

New York State Labor Law protects workers from wage theft, regardless of their immigration status. The law says anyone who performs a job has the right to receive compensation for it, even in the case of undocumented workers.

“Minimum wage and overtime laws apply to all workers, even if they are undocumented, or paid by the hour, day or week, in cash or by check and off the books,” said a publication from the state Department of Labor, created precisely to alert workers about their rights.

The standard also supports those who have accidents at work, so that they can claim compensation for the consequences of these incidents, regardless of their immigration status.

In July, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the implementation of a new process by the state Department of Labor to protect undocumented immigrant workers from retaliation and expulsion during labor disputes, expanding protections implemented earlier this year by the Biden administration. 

Through an interagency partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the state Department of Labor is working with undocumented victims of wage theft and their advocates to obtain temporary protection from prosecution and possible deportation, as well as the ability to work legally in the United States in cases in which the worker is involved in investigations carried out by this agency. The measure was taken precisely to prevent workers from refraining from “reporting unscrupulous employers” for fear of threats of expulsion, reporting to immigration authorities or other forms of retaliation. 

What to do if you have been a victim of wage theft?

According to OLA legal counsel, if you are a victim of wage theft, the first step is to seek advice from an organization like OLA of Eastern Long Island that can guide you through the process, help you file a complaint and guide you in filling out forms and applications. To contact them, call 631 899 3441 .

If the amount of money you are owed is less than $3,000, you can file a simple complaint in your local court, if the amount you are owed exceeds that amount, you have to go to the Supreme Court.

When a worker goes to OLA, the organization sends a “notice” letter to the employer, reminding him of his obligations, stipulated by law, and warning him of the consequences that may result from not complying with the payments agreed upon with his workers.

“It is a letter from OLA telling them that they are breaking the laws,” Padilla said. “The law says that you have to pay a person who has worked, it also says that regardless of a person's immigration status, they have to pay them. There is no exception that says you can make an undocumented immigrant work and not pay them. The law says that no matter the status, that person worked and they have to be paid within a period of 5 days.”

If these steps do not work, OLA's recommendation is to go to the Department of Labor to make a formal complaint. A process with which the organization can also help you with.

“The most important resource is to go to the Department of Labor. You can file a complaint online, you don't need a lawyer for that, because the Department of Labor gives you someone to represent you, who does the investigation. and also mediates between the employer and the employee,” Padilla added.

You can also access the Department of Labor website on your own and file your complaint here.

Tu Prensa Local

According to OLA's experience, the work sectors in which the highest number of complaints of wage theft are reported in the East End of Long Island are: cleaning, painting, carpentry and the various areas of construction. Cases range from hundreds to thousands and thousands of dollars owed.

“We had a case where the person worked with so much trust in his employer, believed his word so much, that he let the debt accumulate up to $60,000,” Padilla said. “We referred this person to a lawyer, due to the amount of money he had and the last time I reviewed the case, they told me that he is on the right track and will get his money back.”

Although the law protects workers, those who carry out work in our area are recommended to always be prepared with the necessary evidence to file a complaint. So pay attention to these recommendations that would make the process easier, if necessary:

  • Collect basic information from your employer (name, address, telephone)
  • Keep track of the dates you worked and the hours worked each day.
  • Collect proof of payment such as check strips, receipts, etc.
  • Save screenshots if you get paid via Zelle, or any money transfer app.
  • If you are paid in cash, you can appeal to witnesses to help you verify that what you say is true.
  • Photos of the worker performing the job also serve as evidence.

“And it is good that they do shake hands with each other, because in the experience I have had looking at these cases, we realize that an employer who does that to one person, does it to more than one person. So the majority of cases that come are in pairs,” Padilla said. “I feel bad but unfortunately it is happening and there are people who are very trusting. These people know how to do damage and they are used to doing damage.”
Please note that the Department of Labor will not accept complaints, in any of these cases:

  • For jobs performed outside of New York state.
  • Any person employed in administrative, executive or professional functions who earns more than $900 (gross) per week.
  • People employed by a public entity, such as a municipality, county or city.
  • People who have their own company.
  • For work performed on a public works project.
A Spanish language media outlet serving Suffolk County, New York.