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New Haven is considering a new approach to prevent wage theft

Labor organizations rallying in Stamford in July 2023.
CT Mirror
Labor organizations rallying in Stamford in July 2023.

At least $17 million in wages has been stolen from Connecticut residents since 2019. New Haven is considering an ordinance that would deter wage theft at the local level.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s José Luis Martínez to discuss his article, “A plan to fight wage theft is taking shape in New Haven,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, José. You say that New Haven is looking into going after restaurants that commit wage theft, by targeting their licenses? What exactly are they trying to do here?

JLM: Yeah, so one of the main problems over the years is that there's been a large number of wage theft complaints to the state. And more recently, a backlog has been created. So you know, for years, this organization down in New Haven, Unidad Latina en Acción, has been advocating for an idea that would specifically revoke or suspend the licenses or permits of businesses that commit labor violations such as wage theft or things like, if someone gets injured in the workplace, and their employer doesn't provide protections. It is still in the early stages, and now there's a lot left to be done.

WSHU: You have the example of someone who had a problem with wage theft and had difficulty trying to recover those lost wages. Could you just tell us a little bit more about that?

JLM: Yeah. So in the case of Lina Segura, she's been waiting for her wages for over a year now. The New Haven Independent covered the early stages of the case last year. And we caught up with Lina through Unidad Latina en Acción. It took over a year from the moment she submitted a complaint to the moment she got some relief. And that has some advocates frustrated.

There are legislative attempts to alleviate this backlog. There's a bill in the legislature right now that would increase the number of inspectors at the state Department of Labor. And so that's the problem. Folks are frustrated that workers either don't get paid or have to wait months to hear back about their cases. So advocates are thinking, let's provide another deterrent. Let's provide another punishment for businesses that try to commit these violations.

WSHU: The problem has been that you can go to the local police, but they cannot do anything about this. It has to go to the Department of Labor. And they're just overwhelmed with how many cases they have to handle.

JLM: That's right. As of March, 1,000 cases have not been assigned to an investigator. A wage investigator from the state Department of Labor testified at a public hearing earlier this year, and he said that it's taking about eight months to just even get started on a case. A lot of these folks that are being affected need the money, then they need to pay rent and other basic necessities.

WSHU: There's some cities around the country that have been able to pass these types of ordinances. Why would that be an issue for a city in Connecticut to do so, like New Haven?

JLM: Yeah. So once the idea of suspending or revoking the licenses and permits of businesses, once that idea was circulated to alders, they asked for a legal opinion from the city's legal department. And they said that it's not legal. And it's because the city's health department does not have that power.

WSHU: So the ordinances will be enforced by the local city health departments. And they don't have the power to levy these types of sanctions on businesses.

JLM: Yeah, the city's health department does not have the power to revoke or suspend the licenses. And that's what the ordinance’s original idea was proposing. And so the folks drafting the ordinance are considering that feedback and trying to see what works.

WSHU: In the meantime, this is a state responsibility. There is legislation being considered by the state legislature; what's the fate of that legislation?

JLM: Yeah, so it's, it's really uncertain. Right now, like many other bills, there's a tight budget this year. They're trying to keep spending down. And, you know, last year this bill seemed to face the same issue. There were competing interests; wage theft is not the only topic that's seeking money for relief, so it didn't get passed by the Appropriations Committee last year and didn't make it to a vote in the House or the Senate. And this year, it got passed out of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, but that's it right now. As for whether it passes, you know, it's uncertain.

WSHU: The Restaurants Association is pushing back on this. They say that basically, this is a state function and therefore, it should be handled on a statewide basis, and it shouldn't be city by city, town by town.

JLM: Correct. They think it should be the state's responsibility. Anything that comes to labor complaints or labor enforcement should be up to the state and not to the city.

WSHU: In the meantime, we still have a backlog of 1,000 cases of wage theft being handled by just a handful of employees in the Department of Labor. Correct?

JLM: Yeah. The Department of Labor's Wage Unit, the Wage and Workplace Standards Unit, is a very specialized division. They have a staff of about 30, including about 21 on the ground. And that number is down from a few years ago, they had over 40, about almost 50, I believe. And yeah, that number has dropped while the number of complaints has increased. There are thousands of complaints a year. And the cases are complex. It's not as simple as just going to an employer telling them to pay. They have to investigate the claim, get records and documents, and try to find a solution with the employer.

WSHU: A law clinic at Yale is trying to look into this question for the aldermen in New Haven, whether they can deal with this issue. What's their take on the decision the city attorney came up with?

JLM: Yeah, so this is the New Haven Medical Legal Partnership at Yale. They took the feedback, looked at what the city's legal department said, and took it into account. They haven't expressed any opposition or support. They're just trying to find what works for both the city to find a solution to this problem, to find an additional wage theft deterrent.

One thing that they do notice is that this isn't supposed to inconvenience businesses, and they're trying to maybe incorporate one of the solutions that was suggested by the city's legal department right now. Again, the original idea had the city's health department suspend or revoke the licenses, but one of the ideas suggested that could be legal is requiring a business to renew or apply for a license to screen check if they committed any labor violations.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.