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Nearly half the workers in New York City’s labor force are immigrants. Statewide, it’s about a quarter. In recognition of the size of this population – and its needs – the state Department of Labor has opened a new division dedicated to helping these workers achieve a better life on and off the job.

The Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights will have offices in Manhattan and upstate to educate new New Yorkers on their employment rights. The office, which opened this month, will work with immigrant advocacy groups to publicize the Department of Labor’s work, direct immigrant workers to resources such as how to file for unemployment insurance, take input from organizations that work with immigrants, and conduct ongoing assessments of the department’s performance.

“The bureau will help immigrants understand what their rights are under the law. We believe that regardless of immigration status, workers deserve fair pay for a fair day’s work,” said Jean Genovese, a labor department spokesperson. “Often immigrant workers need protection because they are the most vulnerable workers.”

The office will be led by Lorelei Boylan, a former assistant attorney general who served in the labor bureau of then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Boylan prosecuted a 2006 case against a Brooklyn greengrocer who refused to pay his workers overtime for 12-hour days. She also handled the 2005 case against a chain of 99-cent stores in Bushwick that ended with the shop owner paying $70,000 in restitution to fired workers.

The Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights will be staffed by Boylan and an assistant, plus two liaisons to immigrant groups. One liaison will be in NYC and another will be in an upstate city yet to be chosen, Genovese said.

Last year the Department of Labor (DOL) collected $4.4 million from employers who failed to pay their employees wages owed. Of that, $3 million was collected by the Fair Wages Task Force, formerly the Apparel Industry Task Force, which specializes in addressing sweatshop-like conditions. The department collected $2 million worth of overtime pay, Genovese said.

Immigrant advocates lauded the creation of the office, saying it will allow the labor department and immigrant organizations to help each other.

“Clearly this is exciting,” said Raj Nayak, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “It’s a great way to facilitate communication between advocates and workers and the Department of Labor. This will help educate workers about their rights and help the department learn about issues affecting immigrant workers.”

In December the Brennan Center, in cooperation with the New York Immigration Coalition and several others, released “Protecting New York’s Workers,” a report filled with suggestions on how DOL could be more responsive to the needs of workers. (See City Limits Online, Dec. 15, 2006, Labor Advocates Cheered By New Commissioner Smith.) The report recommended that DOL partner with community groups to spur investigations and to educate workers on their rights. The report also recommended that the department increase transparency and accessibility by making data of its investigations and their outcomes available monthly.

“We’ve talked to a lot of workers and looked at a bunch of low-wage industries in NYC, and there was a real lack of knowledge of what the law provides. Employers are taking advantage of that. People are vulnerable because they don’t know where to turn, or they aren’t able to hire a lawyer,” Nayak said. “The fact that the department is going to be out there doing more affirmative investigations is going to send a signal that employers might not want to take the risk.”

– Eileen Markey

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