Op-Ed: Labor Rights are Sacred, Regardless of Immigration Status

Op-Ed Published in El Diaro

By Eric T. Schneiderman


Imagine being hired as a cook, but not being paid for three months.  Or being underpaid by tens of thousands of dollars as a garment worker, and then being pressured by your boss to lie at a hearing to cover up for him having underpaid you.  Or, finally recovering wages that were owed to you after being paid less than minimum wage, only to be fired by your boss in retaliation for exercising your rights. 

Each of these stories describes the real experiences of workers in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx who had their labor rights violated.  In these cases, my office investigated and the offenders were arrested (one has pled guilty).  But too often labor violations like these—wage theft, witness tampering, retaliation—go unreported.

Workers who are underpaid, or not paid at all, may not know their rights, or they may not know where to go to report violations. Most of all, many abused workers are afraid to contact authorities, especially if they or their family members are undocumented immigrants.  Many unscrupulous employers rely on precisely this fear to keep their misconduct secret and avoid accountability. 

If you are reading this and are not being paid what you are legally owed for your work, I want you to know that the Attorney General’s labor bureau enforces labor laws for all workers regardless of immigration status.  Please come forward and report what is happening.  We will never ask your immigration status, or share immigration information with federal authorities.

New York State’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour (under very specific conditions, there is a slightly lower rate for workers who receive tips).  If you work more than 40 hours in a week (or 44 hours for live-in workers), you must be paid one and a half times your usual rate for overtime.  Your employer cannot require you to work “off the clock,” and owners and managers may not take a cut of tips.  These practices are illegal, and they are treated as seriously by my office as any other kind of crime. 

Most importantly, you have the right to report violations of the labor law to the government, and it is illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who complain about violations.  Violators are required to pay back wages, come into compliance with the law, and are subject to significant penalties.

The guiding philosophy of my office, for labor rights cases and all the cases that come before us, is that there must be equal justice under the law, and one set of rules for everyone.  If unscrupulous employers are allowed to treat immigrant workers as a special class that is beneath the protection of the law, it puts honest employers at an unfair disadvantage, and lowers workplace standards for all workers—immigrant and native born. 

These are difficult economic times, for workers and for many small businesses.  That’s all the more reason to defend the law, and not allow an economic race to the bottom that drives workers into poverty, and drives honest employers out of business.  If you or someone you know is a victim of labor rights violations, please contact my office at 212-416-8700.