(TRENTON) — Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano and advocates for working families today announced an effort to prevent wage theft by employers in New Jersey, a practice which often affects some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers.
“Workers who are most at risk of wage theft are often times among our most vulnerable populations,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Our current laws are not strong enough to prevent this kind of conduct by unscrupulous employers. We hear that in some cases those who violate the law consider the risk of getting caught and accepting the penalty the ‘cost of doing business.’ Strengthening our laws will better ensure that companies are not taking advantage of workers, and that employees are paid the wages they are owed.”
“Wage theft is a serious issue that we need to address right now,” said Assemblywoman Quijano (D-Union). “This legislation will 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% 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.
Under current state law, victims of wage theft can challenge the loss of wages of up to $30,000 in proceedings before the Department of Labor and Workforce Development Division of Wage and Hour Compliance. If the lost wages exceed that amount, the claimant must either forfeit the amount above the $30,000 threshold or file a civil lawsuit to seek compensation. A victim is only eligible to recover the amount of wages lost.
Senator Weinberg and Assemblywoman Quijano are sponsoring legislation, approved today by the Senate Labor Committee, to strengthen state laws. Key provisions of the bill (SCS for S-1396) 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.
“It’s not enough to have a strong minimum wage. We need laws on the books that deter shady employers from violating those laws and taking advantage of their own workers,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families. “Unfortunately, wage theft is rampant and pervasive in New Jersey, disproportionately impacting women and people of color. I commend Senate Majority Leader Weinberg and Assemblywoman Quijano on their efforts to ensure that a day’s work equals a day’s pay.”
“I know firsthand what it’s like to have tens of thousands of dollars in hard earned wages stolen from you by law-breaking employers. On behalf of the members of Make the Road New Jersey, I applaud the introduction of this very important legislation that will help New Jersey crack down on wage theft and build a stronger, more fair economy for all of us,” said Felix Lema, member of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant and workers’ rights organization.
“Wage theft comes in many forms. Whether it’s failure to pay over-time, not being paid for all hours worked, or stolen tips, wage theft is a serious violation that hurts workers and families,” said Kevin Brown, 32BJ Vice President and NJ State Director. “We need to strengthen New Jersey’s anti-wage theft law and enforcement to protect workers so they’re not exploited and to ensure hardworking men and women get what they deserve–full and timely pay for their hard work.”
Currently five cities and towns have local ordinances which all revoke licenses of businesses found to have committed wage theft: Jersey City, Newark, New Brunswick, Highland Park, and Princeton.
“Municipalities across the state have taken action to protect low wage workers and high road employers from wage theft, a pernicious practice. Senator Weinberg and Assemblywoman Quijano’s bill will create a disincentive to profiting from stolen wages in New Jersey and adopts best practices from across the country,” said Princeton Councilwoman Heather Howard.
The legislation is available here.