New Labor Protests against Wage Theft
By Marco Arias
New Labor protesters marched down the sidewalks of French Street on Nov. 18 to the beat of a drum, in the face of cold winds, and demanded the end to wage theft.
The reason behind the demonstration and caravan from Lakewood to New Brunswick and to Newark is to bring attention to wage theft, which New Labor said is one of the nation’s most exploitative crimes.
By failing to pay an employee’s wages, employers take billions from employees every year, New Labor’s executive director Louis Kimmel said.
New Labor protesters marched up French street and towards La Hacienda, a restaurant that owed New Brunswick resident Irene Lopez $6,000 in unpaid wages. A court order demanded that the restaurant employers pay her $250 a week to cover the $10,000 in salary it failed to give her during her three years of her employment there. She received payments for $4,000 owed to her, but the retro-payments stopped coming, Lopez said. She reached New Labor, a workers’ organization based in New Brunswick voicing immigrant workers’ issues in New Jersey.
When Lopez brought her two children along to protest on French street, they faced a resistant employer. La Hacienda’s owner threatened legal action against Lopez when they showed up at the establishment’s front door with fliers, posters, and megaphones.
Hiring undocumented workers is illegal and employers who do so can face fines of up to $16,000 per worker, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Although hiring undocumented workers is illegal, under the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA), all employees must be paid, regardless of their immigration status.
New Brunswick enacted an ordinance against wage theft in December 2013, enabling the city to deny the renewal of a business license if the business fails to pay its employees in full for their work.
The restaurant’s owner told Lopez that she was to receive $30 a month from the restaurant, Lopez said. A protester pulled up a copy of the court’s decision on his mobile device to find that the document never mentions $30.
Eventually, La Hacienda’s owner closed the front door and left the restaurant before the protesters marched on.
The caravan marched in Lakewood, New Brunswick, and Newark as part of the Interfaith Worker Justice’s National Day of Action against Wage Theft. Work centers across the nation performed actions in solidarity against wage theft.
To fight wage theft, Interfaith Worker Justice’s goal is to have the U.S Department of Labor require employees to receive pay stubs. Pay stubs would allow both employees and employers to keep track of the details of payments, regardless of whether they are made by cash or check.
Before arriving in New Brunswick, the New Labor protesters arrived in Lakewood around 9 a.m. to support Pedro Martinez, a victim of wage theft there. He was owed $1,600 for three weeks of cleaning work. After speaking with the company again, Martinez felt confident of a speedy resolution. “They told me that they were going to pay me what I’m owed,” Martinez said in Spanish. “And I believe they will.”
Martinez said he was hopeful because the consequences for employers who fail to pay their employees can be as or more severe than the employees they threaten deportation to. Employers who do not pay can face criminal charges from the police, and they can be reported to the Internal Revenue Service or the U.S Department of Labor.
After their trip to New Brunswick, New Labor protesters arrived in Newark to support Norlan Trejo as he demanded $1,350 in wages earned in a construction job. That figure used to be $1,500, Norlan said, but they stopped paying him and then claimed to owe him only $450, Norlan said. Getting the wages he earned mattered a lot to him because he needed to support his wife and daughter who live in Honduras. After peacefully pressuring two businesses in separate cities since the morning, he was eager to have his case resolved.
“Today we are applying pressure to wage thieves,” Germania Hernandez, a New Brunswick New Labor protester said in Spanish, “We plan to get them to pay what victims are owed.”
The secret to applying pressure to businesses guilty of wage theft seemed to be persistence.
“Si no pagas, vamos regresar,” the crowd chanted, “If you don’t pay, we will be back.”
The day after the caravan, on Nov. 19, La Hacienda started to pay what was owed to Lopez.
In two payments made on Nov. 19 and Nov. 21 to the Middlesex County Superior Court, totaling $5,531.50, the restaurant owner fulfilled her legal obligations and avoided having their license renewals denied on Dec. 1, 2014, according to Kimmel. The court disburses the sum to Lopez on Dec. 15.