Home News Wage war on wage theft: Legislature should pass EMPIRE Act

Wage war on wage theft: Legislature should pass EMPIRE Act

With the budget wrapped up (late again this year), the Legislature seems poised to shelve all policy matters until the next one, while claiming that they don’t like to do policy in the budget. Instead of repeating the pattern, they should use the time to actually debate, refine and pass legislation that’ll help New Yorkers, like the Empowering People in Rights Enforcement (EMPIRE) Worker Protection Act.

The bill would give “representative organizations” like labor unions, whistleblowers and directly affected employees the power to bring civil wage theft suits against employers, bypassing the swamped state Department of Labor process that is now the only way to seek redress. The Daily News supported the state’s higher minimum wage, so we want to ensure the people making the minimum actually get it.

The groups that have lined up against the measure mainly represent large corporate interests. They don’t defend the indefensible of stealing from employees, but claim that a new avenue for justice for the wronged would be the focus of constant litigation, and argue that the bill would encourage “lawyers to seek out prospective clients and pursue lucrative class action-style litigation,” which is another way of saying that they fear workers standing up for their rights.

The reason this is such a common offense is that so many workers lack the knowledge to know they’re being taken advantage of; giving attorneys an incentive to lay out workers’ rights will help. Ideally, the government would police such infractions, but it’s unable to do the job.

There’s no doubt that, as things stand, the DOL cannot properly handle the volume of potentially meritorious claims it receives. The issue is only going to get worse now as employment in low-paid sectors like home care soars and NYC receives tens of thousands of migrants hungry for work and without much knowledge of labor laws and available remedies. Any frivolous case will be properly dismissed like thousands of other frivolous attempts at litigation that happen in the state every year.

Wage theft is a crime, robbing people for the money they have rightfully earned. It is theft, no different than if an employer wrote a worker a rubber check or picked their pocket. Even when done inadvertently, it’s the result of an inexcusable failure to put in place the systems that would prevent it.

For a business engaged in wage theft, that might mean a few extra dollars on the balance sheet, but for a worker, it can be life-altering. It can mean that bills go unpaid, that children are not properly clothed and fed, that savings aren’t built for a rainy day — not because that person isn’t finding work, but because the work that they did find is stealing from them.

The idea that passing this bill will unleash some sort of onslaught of claims against well-meaning employers is bunk. Our neighbor to the west, New Jersey, enacted a tough wage theft law that included a private right of action in 2019, and the sky has not fallen. Virginia and Illinois have their own versions. It makes sense; you have a private right of action to sue in circumstances where an employer harmed you or broke a contract, why not when one steals from you?


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