New York Tackles Wage Theft Against Immigrants Nearly half of New York City's work force is foreign-born. And labor officials say these immigrant workers are among the most exploited. Now, after what critics call years of neglect, the state's Labor Department is testing out a more aggressive approach to help them.
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New York Tackles Wage Theft Against Immigrants

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New York Tackles Wage Theft Against Immigrants

New York Tackles Wage Theft Against Immigrants

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. In New York, labor officials have launched an aggressive effort to help immigrant workers. Nearly half of New York City's workforce is foreign-born. And the State Department of Labor says immigrant workers are routinely exploited. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has our story about a new campaign to encourage workers to report abuse.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, Carmen Calderon mans a folding table loaded with pamphlets, and tries to flag down passers-by.

Ms. CARMEN CALDERON: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: You know your rights as a worker? She shouts to a sandwich delivery man on a bike. He smiles and keeps going.

Ms. CALDERON: Know your rights as workers in the state of New York. Know our services.

Unidentified Woman: On my way back.

Ms. CALDERON: Okay. We'll be here 'til 4.

LUDDEN: The Labor Department is sending Calderon all over the city with this outreach effort. And she says it's amazing what immigrant workers don't know: what the minimum wage is; that they should get overtime or a lunch break; or that labor laws apply to them, even if they're here illegally.

Ms. CALDERON: Immigrants are really humble people. They don't want to ruffle any feathers. It's like, wow, he's doing me a favor, he gave me a job. But he doesn't realize that he's getting abused by the person supposedly doing them the favor that gets them the job.

LUDDEN: Labor officials say all this means wage and hour violations are stunningly widespread. From upscale restaurants, where bathroom attendants are paid only in tips, to the city's car washes, where inspectors last year found three-quarters did not pay minimum wage or overtime.

Faced with such an overwhelming problem, New York's Labor Department has joined forces with immigrant advocacy groups for what they call Wage Watch. It's an approach taken straight from the concept of Neighborhood Watches.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Unidentified Woman #2: We should try to move quickly 'cause we have, like, four more to go.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay.

LUDDEN: On a cool evening, four teams of state investigators descend on the tony neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. They no longer wait to respond to complaints. Instead, clipboards in hand, they're paying surprise visits to 22 restaurants.

Unidentified Woman #2: Do you think that's an exit for theā€¦

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: What about that side one? You don't think that's the exit?

LUDDEN: They scope out any basement exits first, then post a member outside. This is in case kitchen workers mistake them for immigration agents and try to flee. At a family-friendly chicken place, the team heads inside.

Mr. ARISTOTELES RODRIGUEZ (New York State Department of Labor): My name is Aristoteles Rodriguez. I work for the New York State Department of Labor. We're basically conducting an investigation of your business.

LUDDEN: The cashier looks wary and gets on the phone to call the manager. A few customers near the front window don't seem to notice anything. Rodriguez heads to the back bar to start interviewing waitstaff.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Sundays, he asks, what time do you start work? Four p.m., says a worried-looking young man. And when do you stop? At 11. Tuesdays? Eleven to 11. They go through each day of the week, then move on to pay.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Do they pay you per week? How much? It's per shift, the waiter says. Twenty-five dollars for an eight-hour shift. That's less than half New York's minimum wage for waiters. And the man says he gets no overtime.

Ms. TERRI GERSTEIN (Deputy Labor Commissioner): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: On the sidewalk out front, the Labor Department's Terri Gerstein is hearing a similar story. Workers say they are paid in cash. They get no payroll records. One man describes a work week of over 80 hours.

Ms. GERSTEIN: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: How many days off do you have, she asks. None, he says, maybe three hours at most, once a week. The interview suddenly ends as the restaurant manager shows up.

Ms. GERSTEIN: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. FERNANDO TISOC: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: What's the problem, he asks. Some workers scurry inside; others come out to watch.

Mr. TISOC: (Spanish spoken) What is the reason for it?

Ms. GERSTEIN: The reason for it is we're investigating a number of restaurants in Brooklyn.

LUDDEN: Gerstein tells him that interviews can sometimes show something different than payroll records. Then she asks for the manager's name and gives him her card.

Ms. GERSTEIN: And I also just want to make sure you know, it's against the law to take any kind of - to retaliate against workers for talking to us in any way.

Mr. TISOC: No, I know.

Ms. GERSTEIN: And lower their wages, to change their schedules, to fire them, anything like that.

Mr. TISOC: That's not going to happen. Listen, I know all those laws. Don't worry, I've been doing this for many years.

LUDDEN: The manager, Fernando Tisoc, says he'll have his accountant call to clear up any problems. Later, he tells NPR his worker's tips make up for their low hourly pay. And he insists the restaurant isn't breaking any law - though says he doesn't know about provisions on overtime pay.

After their sweep, labor officials will decide which restaurants to formally audit. They used to investigate individual complaints, only to see some workers fired. Now, Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith says her department works hard to protect the identities of those who claim abuse.

Ms. PATRICIA SMITH (Labor Commissioner): So we will go in, and we will audit the whole establishment, so that the employer is much less likely to know who, if anyone, complained.

LUDDEN: Smith took over as New York's labor commissioner two years ago and says for too long, labor enforcement in New York and at the federal level was lax. Smith says the challenge isn't only that so many workers are vulnerable immigrants; many of their employers are also foreign-born and may know little of U.S. labor laws.

Ms. SMITH: I talk to a lot of employers who are in violation of the law, and when you ask them what was the story, they basically say, well, I bought this store from, you know, Joe X, and this is how - what Joe X did and so, this is what I did.

LUDDEN: Smith says education is key, and that's where her department's new partnership with immigrant rights groups comes in.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Each week in Bushwick, Brooklyn, local activists and union members team up for their own workplace visits.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: In this discount store, they find the manager and hand him a pamphlet on labor laws. They speak with employees, and give them a pamphlet about workers' rights. They're also on the lookout for possible violations to report to the Labor Department. Nieves Padilla of the advocacy group Make the Road New York says she can gather tips better than any labor department official. She knows this neighborhood, and everyone knows her.

Ms. NIEVES PADILLA (Make the Road New York): (Through translator): Even if I'm just in the store to buy something, all the managers think I'm investigating. They say, ah, here's the troublemaker. They follow me around and try to keep me away from their employees, but the workers know me, too, and actually, we have a way of communicating without even speaking.

LUDDEN: Padilla demonstrates this knack in a health and beauty store, where one employee seems too nervous to talk. As the woman watches, Padilla strolls into an aisle and sticks her workers' rights pamphlet between boxes of hair color. The employee smiles as she discreetly retrieves it. The manager has seen nothing.

Unidentified Man #3: Okay.

Ms. PADILLA: Okay. (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: New York's Wage Watch is just a few months old. Officials say it's too soon to measure success. The pilot program is set to expand across the state this summer.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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