An Assembly panel on Monday approved legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano to prevent wage theft by employers in New Jersey, a practice which often affects some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers.
The bill (A-862) would assist workers aggrieved by violations of state wage and hour laws by expanding the remedies available to aggrieved workers and the enforcement provisions available to the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development.
“Wage theft is a serious issue that demands our attention,” said Assemblywoman Quijano (D-Union). “Not only does it primarily impact those who can least afford it – minimum wage earners – but it also disproportionately affects women and people of color. This legislation will help serve as a deterrent for unscrupulous employers and give all the hard-working people of New Jersey an opportunity to have a fair review of wage theft claims.”
Wage theft can include failing to pay the minimum wage, overtime rates or withholding payment for work performed. According to a 2013 New Labor household survey of low-wage workers in New Brunswick, one in six workers reported that wage theft had occurred to them in the previous two years; 85 percent of those individuals were unable to recover the lost wages.
In addition, a 2011 Seton Hall University School of Law report from the Immigrants’ Rights/International Human Rights Clinic found more than half of its respondents were paid less than promised at least once in 2010, almost all were not paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week, and almost half were not paid at all at least once.
Quijano’s bill would provide triple damages to wage theft victims – the wages owed plus liquidated damages equal to 200 percent of wages owed – and provide additional avenues for individuals to challenge wage theft and recover wages.
The bill would allow a citizen complaint to be filed directly with a municipal court. An employer or agent of an employer found in violation of the law would be guilty of a disorderly persons offense and, along with triple damages, required to pay additional fines. Wage theft victims would also be able to file a civil claim in Superior Court under the bill.
The legislation would empower the state Labor Commissioner to hear cases where the amount in dispute is above the current $30,000 threshold. It would expand the commissioner’s authority to conduct audits of businesses in certain circumstances and to order license suspension and revocation for violations of the law found in court, in addition to current authority to act on violations determined by the department. The commissioner could also issue a stop work order or license suspension if an employer fails to comply with a wage theft case decision.
The bill would extend the current statute of limitations to allow an employee to file a wage claim with the Department of Labor for wages owed up to six years prior – up from the current two-year statute of limitations on claims of unpaid minimum wage and overtime for unknowingly failing to pay wages and three years for knowingly failing to pay wages. It would also enhance retaliation protections and penalties.
Additionally, the state would seek the assistance of community-based and legal services organizations to disseminate information to day laborers, migrant laborers, temporary laborers and other workers regarding the laws, and to help or represent employees in wage theft actions. The legislation would also require employers to provide information to their employees about their rights under New Jersey’s wage laws.
The legislation was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.