Blog Archive

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Legislation targets employers who shortchange illegal immigrants

The Daily Record
March 27, 2011

One woman said she had been threatened with deportation if she continued to press for pay at her restaurant job. One man said he made repeated calls for back pay to a former employer who kept putting him off. Another said a former boss set aside a week's salary as a "deposit" and then kept it.

A group of day laborers, all illegal immigrants, gathered Thursday night at the offices of Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant advocacy group, to go over the status of grievances against former bosses and to learn about a proposed state law that would beef up punishments for employers who withhold wages from workers.

Julio Lopez, a 43-year-old Morristown resident, said he left a job at a painting company in mid-December because he hadn't been paid in weeks and needed money to buy clothes and Christmas gifts for his three children, two of them born in the U.S. He said he has a tax identification number and pays taxes on his wages.

"He kept telling me not to worry," Lopez said of his former boss. "I said "I'm worried; I have a wife and kids.' "

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, filed a bill almost two weeks ago called the Wage Protection Act that would increase penalties for employers found guilty of violating the state's wage laws. Not only would such employers be required to repay illegally withheld wages, they also would be required to pay damages and be fined $1,000 plus 20 percent of withheld wages on the first offense. Convicted employers also would be subject to losing various state licenses.

Justin Braz, Quijano's chief of staff, said the bill was inspired by a Seton Hall Law School report released in January focusing on the alleged exploitation of day laborers. But he added that the bill was broader than that because the problem of employers violating the state's wage laws goes beyond those who hire undocumented workers.

"The intent is to protect all workers who deserve to get paid," he said.

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, known as one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, at first responded negatively to the idea of aiding day laborers, saying they do not pay taxes. He then said the bill might be a "good idea."

"The more risk you put on hiring day laborers, the less likely you'll hire them," Carroll said. "Maybe then they'll go home. . . . I don't think many people feel sympathy for employers stealing from illegals. If this is an attempt to make sure businesses play by the rules, that's certainly not unfair."

The proposed bill also would allow some workers to file anonymous civil suits because of a fear of retaliation by employers, although they would be required to file a second set of papers using their names. Braz said the proposal would allow a complainant's identity to be kept from the defendant, at least at first — a concept that drew a critical response from a prominent labor attorney last week.

"Due process requires you know who it is to defend yourself," said Wayne Positan, a Roseland attorney. "It's repugnant to due process."

Positan said state and federal laws already deal with the issue of retaliation, and that the bill might create an unnecessary burden on local courts by sending additional complaints there instead of to state and federal agencies designed to deal with them.

The recent Seton Hall report addressed the vulnerability of day laborers, saying they are easy targets for unscrupulous employers because they often are afraid to go to authorities, fearing deportation, or did not know about their legal options. The report was based on a survey of 113 day laborers, mostly Latinos, at seven sites across New Jersey, including Morristown. It included observations of more than another 100 day laborers who did not want to participate in the survey.

Of those surveyed, 54 percent said they had been paid less than they had been promised over the past year, 48 percent had not been paid at all at some point, 94 percent had not been paid for overtime, and 26 percent had been assaulted on the job. Typical weekly incomes during the winter were less than $200, and between $300 and $400 during the spring and summer, the report said.

Yet just three surveyed workers filed complaints with the state Department of Labor, according to the report.

Department of Labor spokeswoman Kerri Gatling said the state does not keep track of types of complaints, so there is no way to know how many of the 9,598 complaints made to the state between June 30, 2009, and July 1, 2010, were from day laborers. The state did recover $8.3 million of wages or overtime for 8,845 workers over that time period, she said. The state does not ask about immigration status, Gatling said.

Diana Mejia, a co-founder of Wind of the Spirit, said her group helped 47 Morris County workers get close to $30,000 in lost wages last year by negotiating with employers, all without help from the state. She said her group routinely holds meetings to help day laborers deal with employers who won't pay them. It also helps clients file complaints with the state.

Just two of the six workers attending Thursday night's meeting had made such a complaint.

Delsi Cardona, a 23-year-old single mother of a 4-year-old boy, said an employer threatened her with deportation after she asked to be paid money that she was owed. She has not yet filed a complaint.

"I'm very afraid," she said.

Alfonso Ortiz, 47, of Morristown hasn't filed a complaint because he came to Wind of the Spirit three years after he said a flooring company stiffed him for $1,100. The law requires filing within two years, Mejia said.

"It's too long," she said of Ortiz's case. "We still say we'll try to help him."

Silvano Jimenez Camacho, 28, of Morristown and Alejandro Flores, 22, of Parsippany both filed complaints with the state. Camacho said he is owed $1,200 from a flooring company where he worked last year. Flores said a pizzeria owner held a week's salary as a "deposit" and kept it, along with his last week's pay, a total of $1,350.

Both of those complaints are waiting to be adjudicated and are not yet available as public records.

Flores has been in the U.S. since he was 16 and has a 4-year-old daughter. He was not initially aware that keeping a week's salary as a "deposit" was unusual.

He also did not seem to know about overtime. He said he has since found another job that pays better, about $800 a week for at least 10 hours a day, six days a week. He added that he sometimes works more than 12 hours a day but gets the same pay.