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On New Year’s Day, hundreds of thousands of new workers were brought under the state’s minimum wage, recently raised by the legislature from $5.15 an hour to $6, and then $7.15 by 2007.

But some backers of the law fear that workers won’t get the raises to which they are entitled—and will have little recourse to fight for them.

The state Department of Labor is responsible for informing employers of their obligations under the new law. In a December 27 letter, Commissioner Linda Angello said that the agency was in the process of mailing 500,000 workplace posters to employers across the state.

The Working Families Party, which campaigned for the legislation considers that a bit late. “In theory the Department of Labor could have started sending these notices out before Christmas,” said spokesperson Alex Navarro. An informal study this week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that many employers were unaware of the change.

If an employer doesn’t comply with the law, underpaid employees have four options, explained Catherine Ruckelshaus, litigation director at the National Employment Law Project. They can file a claim with the U.S. Department of Labor, the State Department of Labor, or the New York State Attorney General. They can also sue privately. But in reality, she says, the options are more limited.

The Attorney General’s office doesn’t have jurisdiction to act on behalf of a single employee, unless the case will impact a larger number of workers. Even then, their resources are limited. There are 11 labor attorneys in the bureau, only half of whom deal with employment issues full-time. In 2004, they opened just 100 cases.

While both the federal and the state labor departments have the authority to act on minimum wage disputes, neither is the sole recourse, so neither is strictly required to take action.

Since the federal minimum is unaffected by the increase, there will be no new federal action in support of the legislation, said John Chavez, regional public affairs director for the U.S. Labor department.

The state DOL did not return repeated phone calls requesting the number of cases it handled last year or the number of staffers assigned to the job. One source familiar with these issues estimated there were between 90 and 100 investigators for the entire state.

“I’ve never had a [minimum wage] case come to conclusion through the [state] DOL,” said Chaumtoli Huq, a staff attorney at MFY Legal Services’ Workplace Justice Project, who has been practicing labor law in New York for seven years. She traces the problem to chronic underfunding. “If they fund it, it could be a really effective form of enforcement,” she said.

Tony Lu, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center, has had similar experiences. He said the DOL tends to choose only the most straightforward cases. One of his clients was informed that her case was closed even before she had been able to respond to the letter telling her it was open.

That leaves only private litigation, an option beyond the reach of most low-wage workers. There is no right to free counsel for employees with minimum wage disputes, and only a smattering of pro-bono attorneys to take their cases. Ken Kimerling, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it can take several years before litigation produces a result.

Huq agreed, noting that some low-wage workers—who might earn no more than $9,000 or $10,000 a year— must wait for years on claims that represent half their annual salary. “Enforcement is key,” she said.

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