“Cuomo, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!”—Cuomo, listen up! We’re taking up the struggle!
So bellowed members of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in front of the Governor’s midtown offices June 2, as they and other workers rallied in support of a bill that would help cheated employees recover wages owed to them.
$1 Billion A Year
Workers habitually take their bosses to court to try to recoup their rightful pay, and often succeed in convincing judges to award back wages. But, advocates and lawmakers say, the state’s laws are such that deceitful business owners can and do easily skirt those judgments by transferring their assets, including personal property, and thereby escape both culpability and financial obligations.
The Securing Wages Earned Against Theft, or SWEAT, Act, sponsored by Queens State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, would allow victims of wage theft to put a lien on an employer’s assets until legal proceedings conclude and, if business owners are found liable, judgments are paid out.
According to advocates and legislators, unscrupulous bosses in New York State filch roughly $1 billion annually in pay otherwise owed to workers in the restaurant, dry-cleaning and other industries. That amount has likely climbed steeply since early 2020, given the pandemic, they said.
Although the bill passed both houses in 2019, the Governor vetoed it late that year. Although he said he was supportive of the bill’s intent, Mr. Cuomo expressed concerns about its constitutionality.
Make Recovery Easier
Senator Ramos, the Labor Committee Chair, said he was seeking an extra layer of court oversight over the proceedings. “The Governor apparently would like an ex-parte judicial process before workers can put a lien on employers’ assets,” she said.
The SWEAT legislation includes what is basically a so-called mechanics’ lien, which allows those claiming wage theft to make a legal claim for unpaid work against real property, the Jackson Heights Senator said.
“There’s already legal precedents for what we’re proposing, and what we’re trying to acknowledge in that process is the fact that unfortunately a lot of the workforce that falls victims to wage theft are people who don’t know our legal system very well, who don’t speak English very well, who already are scared of being involved in judicial processes. And so we want to make it as easy as possible for them to obtain the wages that they’ve earned,” Senator Ramos said following the rally.
Loopholes in current law effectively allow employers to steal, and place business owners who abide by wage laws at a competitive disadvantage, the bill's supporters said.
Foes Not So Hospitable
A coalition of worker organizations, unions, legal defense and law-school clinics advocacy groups, churches and and others, has said that the not-for-profit New York City Hospitality Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of restaurants and nightclubs, has been “impeding” the legislation’s passage this session.
“You have implied that we workers lie in courts and are gaming the system against employers,” the coalition wrote in an open letter. It challenged that claim, noting that workers are increasingly succeeding in securing judgments against employers, only to find that owners have transferred their assets meanwhile.
“By currying sympathy for unscrupulous employers who ruthlessly and insistently exploit the weaknesses of the current law to make more profit off the backs of their workers, you hurt your own base of employers who aim to do the right thing,” the letter said.
The Alliance’s executive director, Andrew Rigie, said the accusations were “an inaccurate and unfair characterization” of the organization's stance.
'Willing to Address Concerns'
“We’ve expressed a willingness to address openly and in good faith the legitimate legal concerns that struggling small businesses have with this legislation, but as acknowledged by Governor Cuomo when he vetoed the SWEAT bill...revoking due process raises significant legal issues. Until those critical considerations are updated, the legislation remains unviable,” he said in a statement.
Still, Senator Ramos said she “remained optimistic” the bill would be calendared for votes before the legislative session ends June 10 and then would be approved and signed into law.
“I’m hoping that working with the Assembly and the Governor’s Office, we can finally see this bill through this year,” she said, adding that the pandemic and attendant lost workers’ wages had lent the legislation “greater urgency.”
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