Working Without Laws: Exploitation of the Oppressed in New York City

By Michelle Kornblit The National Employment Law Project recently released Working Without Laws, a survey of employment and labor law violations in New York City. This report exposes the reality that America’s labor and employment laws are failing to protect significant numbers of individuals in New York City. Many workers are paid less than the minimum wage and do not receive overtime. They work off the clock without compensation, and oftentimes do not receive lawful meal breaks, if they receive any. When injured, many do not receive workers compensation. Furthermore, when workers complain about unlawful workplace procedures, they are retaliated against. These violations are occurring at alarmingly high rates in New York City and demand attention.

This survey was conducted in 2008 and includes the answers of 1,432 workers in low-wage industries in New York City, a sector employing over half a million workers.

Some of the startling findings from this report are:

* 21% in this sample were paid less then the legally required minimum wage in the previous workweek.   * Of this number, 51% were underpaid by more than $1 an hour. * More than one-third of respondents worked more then 40 hours during the previous week. Of those, 77% did not receive the legally required overtime rate. * Nearly 29% of the workers in this sample came in early and/or stayed late after their shift during the previous workweek. Of these workers, 69 % did not receive any pay at all for the work they performed outside of their regular shift. * 47% of workers who were injured on the job reported that they were required to work despite their injury. * 90% of workers worked enough consecutive hours to be entitled to meal breaks.  70% were not given their full break, or received no break at all.

Often, when workers complain about unlawful working conditions, employers respond illegally with retaliation. Employees have a right to organize to protect their rights and interests, and it is illegal for an employer to retaliate by threatening employees with termination of employment and benefits, or calling federal immigration authorities to conduct an immigration raid.

Nearly 23% of the workers in this sample reported they had made a complaint to their employer or government agency, or attempted to form a union, in the last year. Of those, 42% experienced one or more forms of illegal retaliation from their employer. For example, employers cut workers’ hours and/or pay, fired or suspended workers or threatened to call immigration authorities.

23 % of workers reported they did not make a complaint to their employer during the past 12 months, even though they had experienced a serious problem such as dangerous working conditions or not being paid the minimum wage. Of these workers, 41 % were afraid of losing their job and 40% thought it would not make a difference.

Additionally, it was found that a range of worker characteristics were correlated with higher minimum wage violations.

Foreign-born workers were more than twice as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to have a minimum wage violation. The higher rates were concentrated among women—especially women who were unauthorized immigrants, 40 % of whom had a minimum wage violation in the previous week.

U.S.-born workers of color had minimum wage violation rates ranging from 8% to 17%, in stark contrast to U.S.-born white workers, who in this sample did not have any minimum wage violations in the previous workweek.

Addressing these issues is imperative as workplace violations lead to poverty, economic insecurity, and serve to further perpetuate violations as responsible employers are forced into unfair competition that is “setting off a race to the bottom that threatens to bring down standards throughout the labor market” (page 6). New York State must use its resources toward enforcement of labor laws and enact new legislation to strengthen enforcement abilities. Furthermore, immigrant work centers, unions, and legal service organizations need to have the resources and legal tools to organize workers and monitor workplaces to ensure compliance with labor laws. The goal of a fair workplace must be integrated into the policy agenda of New York City to ensure employees are given the wages they are legally entitled to, given breaks and compensation for overtime, and work in an environment that treats them with respect, to ensure economic opportunity and justice in our city.

Additional Reference: Bernhardt, Anne. Polson, Diana. DeFilippis, James. Working Without Laws, National Employment Law Project. January 2010.