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Go After the Wage Thieves

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This is certainly an interesting approach to stopping wage theft and one that could have real legs for many blue states:

To combat pervasive wage theft in New York and to deter employers from underpaying their workers, three new bills were introduced in the legislature today that would punish violators by making it difficult for them to conduct business in the state.

The legislation, sponsored by Senate Labor Chair Jessica Ramos and Assemblymembers Kenny Burgos, Harvey Epstein, and Linda Rosenthal, would bolster the power of state agencies to crack down on wage theft by stripping violators of their licenses to operate, liquor licenses, as well as issuing stop work orders against them. 

The legislation was prompted by reports of rampant wage theft in the state, including a series of stories published by Documented and ProPublica that revealed that more than 127,000 New Yorkers have been victims of wage theft during a recent five-year period but that the New York State Department of Labor was unable to recover $79 million in back wages owed to them. Among the reasons for the agency’s low recovery rate: understaffing and poor tools for recovering wages and enforcing judgments.

“We knew from our conversations with labor and from our constituent service caseload that wage theft is a chronic problem,” said Senator Ramos. “We did not have the data to understand the scale of the issue in New York State until the ProPublica and Documented series came out last year. Having this reporting as a tool set us up to put this package together and focused our attention on the Department’s capacity.”

The proposed legislation — dubbed the Wage Theft Deterrence Package — includes three bills. The first (S8451) would empower the State Liquor Authority to suspend liquor licenses for bars and restaurants that the Department of Labor has determined owe their workers more than $1,000. This approach has been successful in other parts of the country, including Santa Clara County in California, which has recovered $110,000 for workers since 2019. According to Documented and ProPublica’s analysis, more than $52 million has been stolen from people working in restaurants in New York, more than in any other industry and accounting for more than 25% of all reported wage theft in the state.

Actually shutting down the businesses who steal from workers makes a ton of sense. It probably takes a better Democratic Party than New York has to see it through, or certainly a better governor. But still, states and even cities do have real power. Use it for good.

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