by Howie Hawkins
Low-wage workers are suffering from an epidemic of wage theft amounting to $50 billion a year in the United States. New York is no exception. According to a 2014 U.S. Department of Labor report, workers in New York have $1 billion of wages stolen from them each year.
A landmark survey in 2008 by the National Employment Law Project of workers in low-wage industries in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that 26% were paid less than the minimum wage. Of the one quarter of workers who worked more than 40 hours a week, 76% were not paid overtime. 30% of tipped employees did not get paid their state’s minimum wage and 12% had their tips stolen by an employer or supervisor.
In 2019 so far, workers have filed some 5,800 lawsuits in New York federal courts concerning such violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act as failure to pay minimum and overtime wages and illegal workplace retaliation against workers who file complaints or try to organize unions.
Workers often win their wage theft cases in court, but they have hard time collecting their back pay because the businesses sued often go out of business, hide their assets, and then re-open under a new name to resume stealing workers’ wages. A study by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in 2015 found workers were owed more than $126 million awarded to them in New York State in wage theft cases.
The Secure Wages Earned Against Theft Act (SWEAT Act, A486/S2844) would remedy the disappearing employer problem by enabling workers to apply a lien at the onset of litigation to immediately freeze the owners’ assets instead of waiting for the court to award a judgment. The lien would ensure that workers to collect their back wages from employers. California and Wisconsin have laws that enable workers to file liens against bosses who steal wages. New York should, too.
Passed by the legislature in June, the SWEAT Act still awaits Governor Cuomo’s signatures to make it law. On December 12, Cuomo signed a much narrower bill he proposed himself that prevents owners of limited liability corporations from hiding behind complicated corporate structure to avoid liability for unpaid wages. This bill does not cover most workers whose wages are stolen and awarded back wages by a court. These workers are never paid by owners who close down and hide their assets to avoid a court-ordered payment of back wages. Cuomo’s bill is no substitute for the SWEAT Act and he should not get away with letting the SWEAT Act die without his signature to make it law.
If Cuomo doesn’t sign SWEAT Act by December 31, the bill dies. Cuomo calls himself the “pragmatic progressive” who gets things done. It’s time for him to show us by signing the SWEAT Act.