Brooklyn Wage Theft Case Grinds On

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A former employee of Double GG Construction in Williamsburg remembers his manager’s response when workers protested their long hours and low overtime pay.

“He said, ‘Whoever wants to work: work. Whoever doesn’t want to: leave,'” says Rafael Navor through a translator. He is one of eight members of the Make the Road New York “Trabajadores En Acción” organization who took the alternative path of seeking back overtime pay from Double GG.

According to research by advocates, wage abuse is common in New York City. A 2010 survey of over 1,400 low-wage workers in the city by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that 77 percent of employees who had worked overtime in the previous week did not receive the pay required by law.

But the case of the Double GG workers before the state Department of Labor (NYDOL) demonstrates the difficulties faced by workers attempting to recover money the law says they are entitled to. Advocates say the agency with authority to enforce New York’s strong labor laws struggles to meet the burden.

“They just don’t have the resources to investigate these claims,” said Magdalena Barbosa, the Make the Road attorney representing the Double GG workers, in a phone interview. “You know, more laws mean more claims.”

A broad problem

The NELP study estimates that the city’s lowest-paid workers lose $18.4 million each week due to infractions against employment and labor laws like shorting employees on the minimum wage and working them off the clock.

“When unscrupulous employers break the law and drive down labor standards, they rob families of badly needed money to put food on the table,” the authors of the study conclude. “They rob communities of spending power. They rob state and local governments of vital tax revenues. And they rob the nation of the good jobs and workplace standards needed to compete in the global economy.”

The commercial strip on Knickerbocker Avenue near the Bushwick office where Navor and the other Double GG workers attend weekly meetings was the site of a significant victory by Make the Road on behalf of the neighborhood’s low-wage workers.

Make the Road organizer Nieves Padilla, whose office doorway displays a supersized check for $2.2 million won by workers in 2009 in that campaign, said she and others gathered more than 5,000 signatures to boycott stores where workers were fired for trying to unionize starting in 2005. The successful wage theft cases Make the Road workers later pressed with NYDOL as part of this “Despierta Bushwick” (“Wake up Bushwick”) push led to sizeable payouts for the workers.

Although the Double GG workers were not Make the Road members in those days, Padilla says they are now active members among the “hundreds” of workers pursuing cases through the organization.

Navor and his brothers Alejandro and Emilio said managers at Double GG demanded they work irregular hours building and remodeling, and another worker named Preciliano Hernandez recalled being made to work past midnight frequently. They said the cash they received for overtime pay fell far short of the “time and a half” requirement. None work at Double GG these days.

Make the Road helped them file a claim with NYDOL in 2009 and, though the organization reports the subsequent investigation found that violations and penalties against Double GG came to more than $500,000, the workers still haven’t received any back pay.

“The commissioner issued an order to comply to the employer who has appealed to the Industrial Board of Appeals,” NYDOL
spokeswoman Jennifer Krinsky wrote in an email statement. “The case is currently awaiting a hearing date.”

Efforts to reach Gabriel Grunblatt, the owner of Double GG, were unsuccessful. Occupants of the warehouse listed as the company’s active address in state records said the company had gone out of business and that they didn’t know any contact information for Grunblatt. Lawyers and architects listed on past property deeds and permits with the city Department of Buildings said they couldn’t recall Grunblatt or the company.

“Most of the time when they disappear, that’s when they know it’s time to pay up,” says Padilla about employers suspected of wage theft.

Defense, not offense, advocates say

The three dozen or so men and women who came out for a weekly meeting at Make the Road’s Bushwick office commiserated about their respective cases in Spanish under the direction of an organizer named Augusto Fernandez. Although everyone laughed at pictures of the owner of a pizza joint angrily confronting a Make the Road group demonstrating outside his restaurant, Padilla cautioned members not to think of employers as the enemy.

“One of the things the we always say to the workers is that we are here to defend your rights but we are not here to close businesses,” says Padilla.

But Barbosa said that the former Double GG workers might have a year’s wait ahead of them just to receive a hearing date. Make the Road pursues cases like this at NYDOL instead of the federal level because of New York’s longer statute of limitations and the increased protections for employees and stiffer penalties for offending employers from the state’s 2010 Wage Theft Prevention Act. Yet the new legislation did not spur additional funding to the agency.

“When you speak to officials at the Department of Labor, I think you’ll find that the biggest problem they have is the huge backlog,” said Barbosa. “The reason for their backlog is a lack of resources, not having enough inspectors.”

The NYDOL disputes that assessment. Krinsky wrote that NYDOL’s “track record of returning stolen funds to deserving workers speaks for itself,” citing total payouts to workers of $20 million in 2012, $26 million in 2011 and $18 million the year before. She also said NYDOL would be increasing the number of wage theft inspectors from 105 to 109.

Yet a 2011 report on labor standards for low-wage workers from the Migrant Policy Institute gave New York credit for having the most inspectors of any state labor department in fiscal year 2010: 128.

Make the Road released a policy white paper in June referencing more than 15,000 open cases at NYDOL and calling for the agency to hire an additional 200 inspectors. The NELP’s report hailed “innovative reforms” like partnering with the Attorney General’s Labor Bureau on certain cases but also recommended increasing staffing at NYDOL to at least 2007 levels.

The former Double GG workers express frustration with how long their case has taken, but they are optimistic that efforts with their “compañeros” like a June demonstration at the company’s warehouse will help workers regain their lawful wages.

“There is strength in our unity,” says Navor.