Working to Stop Wage Theft

By Michael Hill

Felix Lema said a construction job boss stole his wages.

Make the Road New Jersey recently helped him recover some of his pay.

“I had been owed wages for a long time by my employer. I asked him everyday please pay me, please pay me. One day he said you need to go home now you need to stop asking me and he gave me a ride home. Instead of taking me home he drove me to the Elizabeth Immigration Detention Center where the threat was deportation,” said Sara Cullinane, state director of Make the Road New Jersey who was translating Lemas’ words.

A broad section of groups stood shoulder to shoulder to show their support to strengthen New Jersey’s wage theft law, support that was sometimes profane.

“When a Republican Legislature wants to say this hurts business, I say to you that’s bull—t,” said New Jersey Amalgamated Transit Union Chairman Ray Greaves.

To employers who take workers’ wages, NJ NAACP Economic Director Bruce Davis said, “What differentiates what you do from slavery?”

The Senate Labor Committee just approved Senate bill 1396. It would allow wage theft victims to have their claims not only heard by the state Labor Department but in municipal and superior courts, allow disorderly persons’ charges against violators and increase the statute of limitations to recover unpaid wages from two to six years.

New Jersey Working Families — the same organization behind raising the minimum wage — is leading the charge on wage theft protection.

“We have to make sure that every worker actually receives compensation,” said New Jersey Working Families Executive Director Analilia Mejia.

“But to me it’s the same idea as stealing from a bank,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

“If good employer and pay your employees you have nothing to worry about,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano.

Republican Sen. Anthony Bucco says he opposes this bill and is coming up with his own version to address wage theft.

“It’s being drafted as we speak. When will it be filed? As soon as I get it we’ll put it in,” he said.

Sen. Bucco says he supports expanding the statute of limitations but Senate bill 1396 falls short in other areas.

“This wasn’t the fix for it. We did have testimony saytin that they did file a complaints but it’s take too long to resolve. But this bill wouldn’t solve that either,” he said.

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association opposes the bill because it says it could result in difficult-to-comply-with and confusing workplace mandates.

The Employers Association of New Jersey says it appears that the bill represents a solution in search of a problem. Having said that, adding a citizen complaint to the current New Jersey wage and hour law, and facilitating legal services for those exploited workers who cannot afford a lawyer will solve the problem of unscrupulous employers.