Activists Testify for Wage Theft Bills

Wage theft at Gourmet Heaven sparked a year of protests outside the New Haven-based chain eatery.

If immigrant and labor rights advocates have their way, new legislation will make it easier for wage theft plaintiffs to obtain double damages from guilty employers while having the option of imposing property liens on parties that do not pay.

This week, the double damages bill made it through the Labor and Public Employees Committee and onto the state Senate.

The Committee heard testimony pertaining to a handful of worker-related bills last Thursday, but Unidad Latina en Accion, (ULA) activist Megan Fountain and former employees of New Haven’s Gourmet Heaven-hit by the Department of Labor for minimum wage and overtime violations-came out to urge the passing of the proposed wage theft laws.

“It’s extremely difficult for workers to get paid just the minimum wage-just the overtime-that they’ve earned,” Fountain told the Committee. “We need to do a better job for our workers.”

The problem is not unique just to Connecticut. ULA released a comprehensive wage theft report shortly before going to Hartford to deliver testimony. The document cited 2008 statistics from The National Employment Law Project, which found that two-thirds of workers surveyed across three major cities reported at least one wage violation in the work week prior to their participation in the study.

On average, wage theft victims reportedly lose 15 percent of their weekly earnings, according to The National Employment Law Project.

“We don’t have statistics for Connecticut, but we have no reason to think that things here are any better,” said New Haven Legal Aid Attorney James Bhandary-Alexander.

There are the stories-detailed in ULA’s report-and the Gourmet Heaven case against owner Chung Cho is just one of them. New Haven’s Cafe Goodfellas was cited for wage theft violations in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. In 2011, the restaurant forfeited $23,636 in unpaid wages to four employees who alleged that they made less than $7 an hour.

Workers at Renaissance Nail Salon in Darien are still owed $209,000 for unpaid minimum wage and overtime, as well as stolen tips. The 2012 court order has been left unenforced because the business owners “disappeared” following the foreclosure of their homes and filing for bankruptcy, according to the ULA report.

“They won a default judgement, and couldn’t collect a penny of it,” Fountain said.

It’s not uncommon for employers to attempt to avoid wage theft payments through bankruptcy or changing the name of their business, according to Nadine Nevins, the managing attorney for the Stamford Day Laborer’s Clinic.

Plaintiffs can petition for a financial institution execution, a process by which the payment owed is removed from the employer’s bank account, but workers’ ability to go this route is limited by how much information they have, Nevins says.

“Many times they’re not paid by check,” Nevins said over the phone several weeks ago. “They don’t know where the employer banks. They don’t generally have representation. The tools we have don’t work for low-income people.”

The establishment of liens for unpaid wages could address that, and it’s not a new concept, proponents of the bill say.

“Wage liens exist in many other states,” Bhandary-Alexander said.

Exactly how varies, but states that have adopted some form of a wage lien law include Alaska, Idaho, New Hampshire, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. 

Current wage theft legislation in Connecticut has a mechanism by which a plaintiff can receive double damages, but its on them to prove that their employer did not make a “good faith attempt” to follow the law.

One of the bills being proposed would shift that burden onto the employer.

“My clients are routinely underpaid, and have their rights violated week in and week out,” Bhandary-Alexander said. “The worker is not the only victim. Businesses that comply with the law are the victims because they’re low-balled by competitors. The government is a victim because they don’t get their taxes.”

 

 

 

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