Manhattan District Attorney Announces Creation of “Worker Protection Unit” to Combat Wage Theft

The Manhattan District Attorney announced the creation of a Worker Protection Unit to investigate and prosecute wage theft which includes miclassification of workers as independent contractors instead of employees.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., today announced the creation of the Office’s first-ever Worker Protection Unit to investigate and prosecute wage theft and other forms of worker harassment and exploitation across Manhattan’s many industries. Building on the success of the Office’s Construction Fraud Task Force, which will be part of the Worker Protection Unit, the Unit will pursue criminal charges against individuals and corporations that jeopardize their workers’ safety and steal their wages.

D.A. Bragg also announced the creation of a first-ever Stolen Wage Fund for Manhattan victims of wage theft, funded through the D.A.’s Criminal Justice Investment Initiative and operated in partnership with the New York State Department of Labor.

Finally, in an effort to allow the Unit to bring appropriately strong charges against individuals and companies that cheat their workers, D.A. Bragg joined Assemblymember Catalina Cruz and State Senator Neil Breslin to support their bill that would enable prosecutors to charge wage theft as larceny.

“At the Manhattan D.A.’s office, we’re holding accountable companies and executives that exploit their workers, whether by jeopardizing their safety or stealing their wages,” said District Attorney Bragg. “The creation of the Office’s first-ever Worker Protection Unit is our latest move to stand up for hard-working New Yorkers. Again and again, we see companies taking advantage of our most vulnerable populations, including low-income and undocumented New Yorkers, and abusing power imbalances to line their pockets. Together with our partners in law enforcement, the legislature, the community, and beyond, we will make sure workers are treated fairly, and bad faith employers who violate the laws are held accountable for their crimes.”

“District Attorney Bragg’s new Worker Protection Unit and Stolen Wage Fund are welcomed tools in the Department of Labor’s continued efforts to protect all working New Yorkers,” said New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon. “We are proud to be working side by side with this new unit to assure unscrupulous employers are held accountable and workers recover their stolen wages. I thank D.A. Bragg for continuing to be a strong partner in our joint pursuit of justice.”

“Companies that steal wages from their workers deserve to face legal consequences,” said New York City Comptroller Brad Lander. “I applaud District Attorney Bragg’s efforts to expand enforcement to hold bad faith employers accountable. Tens of thousands of New York City workers are cheated of their wages year after year, and while someone can get arrested for stealing your $200 TV, there are often no criminal consequences to stealing $2,000 of your wages. This new unit at the District Attorney’s office will contribute significant capacity to putting a stop to pervasive wage theft.”

“Wage theft is not only pervasive and opportunistic crime that plagues the most vulnerable of our communities, it is a workplace plight city and statewide. It causes millions of dollars in lost wages, draining the resources of city and state agencies and detrimentally impacting the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers and their families,” said Assemblymember Catalina Cruz. “It is time that we begin prosecuting the right people- those who take advantage of workers who are too afraid or otherwise incapable of accessing the law. I applaud Manhattan District Attorney Bragg and his team for this courageous platform, and I look forward to working with him not only on the passage of my bill, but towards the justice and advancement of marginalized communities such as mine.”

“A strong economy requires a strong workforce that is able to earn a fair living, but too often workers experience wage theft, harassment and exploitation on the job,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine. “$1 billion in wages are stolen from workers every year, severely damaging our economy and stalling our recovery. This new unit will be a key part of holding those employers accountable and protecting New Yorkers, and I’m grateful for DA Bragg’s leadership.”

“This past summer, workers won a fair workweek lawsuit against Chipotle, granting them payment of lost wages and placing a civil penalty on the company. Although $20 million is a drop in the bucket for a huge corporation, it signaled to workers that their rights in NYC matter,” said Civil Service and Labor Chair, Council Member Carmen De La Rosa. “Our most vulnerable New Yorkers – essential working class and immigrant families – have been exploited for far too long. Enforcing worker protection laws are what hold employers accountable. I’m proud to stand with Manhattan DA Alvin L. Bragg Jr. and Assistant D.A. Rachana Pathak in emphasizing that we will not take worker protections violations lightly, and we will protect our workforce by any means.”

“The Consulate General of Mexico in New York is pleased to congratulate the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for the creation of the Worker Protection Unit, materializing their long-lasting commitment to protect the labor rights of the most vulnerable communities,” said Mexican Consulate General Jorge Islas Lopez.

“The New York City District Council of Carpenters’ fights every day for fair wages, good benefits, and safe job sites, and on behalf of our 20,000 members, we applaud Manhattan District Attorney Bragg’s creation of a Worker Protection Unit and Stolen Wages Fund. I’ve seen firsthand the abuse contractors commit, and New Yorkers deserve better,” said David Caraballoso, Vice President of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. “We must continue to advocate for stronger worker protections and legislation to criminalize wage theft. I commend D.A. Bragg for standing up for hardworking New Yorkers and helping put an end to wage theft once and for all.”

“Too many workers are subjected to wage theft every week, to the tune of $20 million to be exact – it’s a crime, and should be treated like one under law, plain and simple, and employers need to be held accountable. Today’s announcement takes a major leap towards addressing the wage theft crisis at a time when workers are struggling to keep up with growing inflation. District Attorney Bragg is setting in motion major reforms that will go a long way, not just in recovering stolen wages, but most importantly by protecting workers, regardless of their immigration status, from experiencing future abuses by aggressively prosecuting these bad actors.  We look forward to working with the DA’s new Worker Protection Unit to ensure workers who have been targeted by unscrupulous employers utilize every means available for fighting back to recover their wages quickly and making their workplaces safer,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). 

“New York’s construction industry is polluted with crooked contractors whose very business model is based on exploiting and stealing from the city’s most vulnerable workers—immigrants, people of color, and the formerly incarcerated.  I hope the word gets out to unscrupulous employers everywhere–continue to cheat workers and prepare to find yourself either in jail or out of business,” said Michael E. Hellstrom, Vice President and Eastern Regional Manager Laborers’ International Union of North America. “I also hope the word gets out to the thousands of workers who face exploitation and hardship on the job. No longer do you have to work in fear in unsafe and unfair conditions. D.A. Bragg’s Workers Protection Unit is committed to helping you and has the resources to back it up. The 17,000-member Mason Tenders District Council is committed to helping D.A. Bragg and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office by supporting workers and identifying wage theft and worker exploration whenever and wherever it happens.”

“Make the Road New York applauds these efforts to strengthen workplace rights enforcement amidst rampant wage theft and abuse in our communities,” said Sienna Fontaine, Legal Director and General Counsel for Make the Road New York. “Black, brown, and immigrant workers are among those most vulnerable to exploitative workplaces, which undermine the economic stability in our communities. Enforcement resources have long been grossly inadequate, and workers’ rights must continue to be an enforcement priority.”

“Immigrant workers are among some of the most vulnerable to the pandemic of wage theft. Wage theft is a systemic abuse that needs to be rooted out from all industries and be addressed as a high-priority issue,” said Nilbia Coyote, Executive Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). “We hope that the Manhattan DA’s creation of a Worker Protection Unit will continue to hold unscrupulous employers accountable and make sure that workers’ rights are upheld and respected. We demand that all workers receive their well-deserved payment at the end of the day no matter of their race, color or immigration status!”

“Workers in low wage industries regularly deal with health and safety violations, wage and hour issues, and exploitation on the job. Where our government puts its resources is ultimately where its priorities are – and this investment in a new Worker Protection Unit is essential,” said Charlene Obernauer, Executive Director of NYCOSH. “We thank D.A. Bragg for his leadership and partnership supporting workers.”

“Far too often, irresponsible and unscrupulous contractors on construction sites abuse their workers by withholding wages, overtime, and benefits, and by mobilizing more extensive wage protection measures, Manhattan has stepped up to protect New York City’s tradesmen and tradeswomen from further exploitation,” said Gary LaBarbera, President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. “Honest work should always result in honest pay and accountability on the job is fundamental. We applaud DA Bragg for being an advocate for hardworking New Yorkers, and their families, and look forward to working with his office to ensure construction workers are being protected and compensated properly for their contributions to driving forward key infrastructure projects in our city.”

The Manhattan D.A.’s Worker Protection Unit 

Wage theft in New York accounts for nearly $1 billion in lost wages each year and affects tens of thousands of workers, according to Cornell University’s Worker Institute. The Manhattan D.A.’s Office has long led the way in prosecuting wage theft, primarily in the construction and real estate development industries. With this new unit, the Office will significantly expand its focus to include other industries with high rates of worker exploitation and wage theft, such as home healthcare agencies, fast food and restaurants, hotels, and more. The Unit will also enforce workplace safety labor laws, building on the work of the Office’s Construction Fraud Task Force, and pursue charges ranging from reckless endangerment to manslaughter when an employer creates dangerous or deadly work environments.

The Unit will not only prosecute individuals and corporations that steal wages, but will also work to recoup stolen wages and debar companies from city contracts. The Unit will work alongside the D.A.’s Community Partnerships, Immigrant Affairs, and Witness Aid Services Units, as well as community-based organizations and consulates, to encourage vulnerable and under-served populations to report wage theft.

Assistant D.A. and Senior Investigative Counsel Rachana Pathak is the Chief of the Worker Protection Unit; she also continues as the Supervising Attorney of the Construction Fraud Task Force. Assistant D.A. Meredith McGowan is the Unit’s Supervising Attorney for Wage Theft. The Unit also includes a dedicated coordinator, paralegal, and two part-time investigators. The Office is currently posting for an additional Assistant D.A. and another analyst for the Unit.

Report wage theft or dangerous work conditions by calling or messaging the Worker Protection Unit at (646) 712-0298. The Office is a safe place to report crime, whether or not you are documented.

The Manhattan D.A.’s Stolen Wage Fund 

Recognizing that victims of wage theft are not always made whole through criminal prosecutions, the Manhattan D.A.’s Office is investing $100,000 to create a pilot Stolen Wage Fund for Manhattan victims of wage theft. In partnership with the Department of Labor, the Fund will help victims of wage theft who come forward after a criminal case has concluded and case-related restitution has already been distributed. The Fund will also assist victims of companies that declare bankruptcy or otherwise cannot repay stolen wages. After evaluating the pilot, the Office may invest up to $500,000 in the Fund.

According to the Memorandum of Understanding signed last week, the Department of Labor will vet claims and calculate stolen wages, which the D.A.’s Office will then distribute to claimants. Claims must be for work performed in Manhattan, reported within one year of a criminal conviction for theft, and filed under penalty of perjury. The Office will assess the success of this pilot fund after one year and will commit to additional funding as appropriate.

Strengthening New York’s Wage Theft Laws 

Currently, New York State law does not consider wage theft to be property theft, meaning prosecutors cannot charge larceny for stolen wages. Accordingly, individuals and companies that steal workers’ wages typically face charges of Scheme to Defraud, which is the lowest level felony under New York State law.

Under a bill introduced by Assemblymember Catalina Cruz and State Senator Neil Breslin, New York’s Grand Larceny statutes would be amended to include wage theft, enabling prosecutors to charge much more serious felonies, depending on the number of workers affected and the amount stolen. D.A. Bragg is joining Assemblymember Cruz, Senator Breslin, union leaders and worker advocates to call on the legislature to pass this crucial bill during the current legislative session.

Source: D.A. Bragg Announces Creation of Office’s First “Worker Protection Unit” to Combat Wage Theft, Protect New Yorkers From Unsafe Work Conditions – Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

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