‘We need Albany to act now. By addressing wage theft and giving exploited workers a more secure path to recouping unpaid wages we will be taking a major step towards making sure that immigrant workers are given the dignity entitled by their hard and important work.’

New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE)

Sen. Jessica Ramos, sponsor of S2766/A3350, with workers from New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE).

Even as New York’s working people become a leading priority for elected officials across the state, new immigrants and day laborers in the construction industry remain at the mercy of unscrupulous contractors.

In New York, thousands of construction workers – most often non-union, immigrant, and undocumented individuals – are cheated of their livelihoods through a practice employed by irresponsible contractors known as wage theft. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately $1 billion in wages were stolen from workers in pre-pandemic New York annually.

Fortunately, there is legislation S2766/A3350 moving through Albany that can change that – ensuring these workers aren’t robbed of the wages, overtime, and benefits they’re owed, and that construction sites across the state become more accountable workplaces.

Wage theft is a particularly insidious crime because victims are left with little recourse to recoup what has been taken from them due to fear of going to authorities, fear of sharing information, and fear of what reporting bad actors would mean for the lives they have built for themselves and their families. Because of this, the reality is that the extent of wage theft, and the damage it causes, is likely far greater than what is currently known by state and federal agencies.

New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), the organization for which I serve as the executive director, works to improve the lives of immigrant workers and serves as a hub for workers that get taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. We know too well how many of these bad actors make exploiting the vulnerabilities of this labor force part of their business model.

NICE tracks wage theft cases among immigrant workers that come to our worker centers for assistance and the numbers are staggering. In the year prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we recorded over 700 reports of wage theft cases — ranging from $50 to $170,000, all stolen from hardworking New Yorkers. Of these cases, 68 percent involved amounts ranging from $500 to $2500. And that’s only counting those who were able to overcome the fear of being blacklisted as a result of reporting wage theft.

This is not just one or two bad actors that are making life irreparably more challenging and frightening for New York’s most vulnerable workers; it is, unfortunately, endemic in a system that has for far too long ignored the rights of workers, and one that also has been complicit in allowing practices that only serve to enrich negligent subcontractors.

In addition to cheating workers of their earned wages, we have found there is almost always a correlation between those that steal from their employees and other workplace violations such as catastrophic injuries, death, tax fraud, and insurance fraud.

Legislation S2766/A3350 would broaden pathways for workers to recover stolen wages and could soon become law in New York if the Senate takes a stand for New York’s immigrants and construction workers.

The bill, which has passed the Assembly and is now moving through the State Senate led by Sen. Jessica Ramos, aims to curb wage theft by making general contractors jointly and severally liable for violations committed by subcontractors on construction sites — because accountability starts at the top.

This legislation will ensure that general contractors become more discerning and confident that the subcontractors they hire will get the job done, and get it done with the wellbeing of everyone in mind—which means paying their workers what they’re owed and operating a safe worksite.

S2766/A3350 legislation will help rid the industry of bad actors who repeatedly commit infractions while creating more opportunities for good subcontractors, and more businesses run by more traditionally marginalized groups, especially M/WBE’s.

This legislation will finally bring accountability and uniformity to the industry by expanding the laws protecting workers on public projects to all construction projects across the state. We need your support and solidarity to put pressure on our elected officials to pass S2766/A3350.

We need Albany to act now. By addressing wage theft and giving exploited workers a more secure path to recouping unpaid wages we will be taking a major step towards making sure that immigrant workers are given the dignity entitled by their hard and important work.

The pandemic has reinforced how important these essential workers are to our state and the magnitude of their contributions. Let’s now show them that they matter by pushing for the passing of S2766/A3350.

Manuel Castro is the executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a nonprofit organization with centers in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, dedicated to improving the lives of immigrant workers and their families. Follow them on Twitter at @NICE4Workers.