POSITION PAPER 1: WORKERS’ RIGHTS
Economic crimes, broadly defined, include everything from fraud to arson to embezzlement. All of these need to be prosecuted, but one area where the Queens District Attorney must increase its focus is protecting workers and immigrants from wage theft, unsafe work environments, and hostile work environments.
The current Economic Crimes Bureau in the Queens DA’s office states that its traditional role is protecting employers from embezzlement by employees, yet an equal, if not higher focus must be on the extensive theft in the opposite direction: employers stealing wages from workers. Recent estimates find that New Yorkers lose over a billion dollars a year due to wage theft, with the largest number of victims being workers in the construction, restaurant, janitorial, and home care fields.
Workers also face severe risks to personal safety, especially in the construction industry, due to the failure by employers to provide adequate workplace safety. Over 5000 workers died on the job in 2016, nearly 100 per week, and many of those deaths may have been preventable if employers had followed legally required safety procedures. Other workers suffer severe health effects from toxic exposures that may not show up for years after their employment.
Multiple factors help these crimes remain relatively hidden, leaving the perpetrators unaccountable and unpunished for their actions. Frequently, victims are immigrants, who are more vulnerable due to language barriers and immigration status that make them reluctant to report crimes. Further, historically many of these crimes, even when exposed, rarely result in arrests and prosecution, but rather civil penalties and lawsuits that employers would accept as a cost of doing business.
It’s time to take wage theft and workplace safety seriously.
District Attorneys in other Boroughs have already established strategic practices and procedures which can serve as a model for treating wage theft and workplace safety violations as the crimes that they are.
In Brooklyn, DA Gonzalez indicted the owner of a construction company for criminally negligent homicide for failing to secure a partially demolished retaining wall that collapsed and killed an 18-year-old Ecuadoran immigrant. He also brought a 61-count indictment against 5 developers for knowingly exposing his workers to asbestos without proper protections. In Manhattan, DA Vance made a commitment to fighting wage theft, and followed through with indictments of individuals who were systematically robbing workers of their hard-earned pay for performing dangerous work.
These types of prosecutions do more than punish the guilty parties; they send a strong message to employers that this type of behavior will no longer be viewed as simply a civil matter which can result in a fine. Putting workers in danger, stealing money from their paychecks, or committing fraud to cover up these actions are serious crimes, and will be prosecuted as such. Prosecution will be a strong deterrent on other employers who might consider violating the law to try to boost their own profits.
Bringing Reforms to Queens
Melinda Katz has a lifelong history of standing up for workers, women, and immigrants. Having served as chair of the City Council’s Land Use committee, she has deep experience in development issues, including worksite safety and wage policies, knows the labor, construction, and development communities, and would be able to hit the ground running to expand the DA’s operations to more fully address these issues from a public safety and worker safety perspective.
As Queens’ next DA, she’ll put a strong focus on preventing crimes against workers, investigating crimes that may have occurred, and holding those who would harm workers or steal their money accountable.
Establish a Worker Protection Bureau
The District Attorney’s office needs to be an active advocate for workers and hold employers accountable for wage theft and safe working conditions. This Bureau will oversee all actions taken by the administration to address workers’ rights and issues.
Mandatory Investigations for Workplace Injuries
Workplace safety violations often go unreported, and evidence of wrongdoing can disappear if not gathered quickly. Currently, the DA waits for the City to make determinations before getting involved. Melinda will have a strict policy of assigning a trained ADA with expertise in construction industry to every major workplace accident or fatality, rather than waiting for the City to make a decision.
Prosecute Workplace Violations
When employers knowingly choose to put construction workers or others at risk, they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Injuring a worker through willful employer negligence is no less a crime than injuring someone with a weapon, and will be prosecuted as such.
Elevate Wage Theft Prosecutions
Wage theft grows when it goes unpunished, so Melinda will actively investigate allegations of wage theft and engage with communities to ensure that workers know their rights. When cases of wage theft are found, those caught stealing from workers will be prosecuted as the criminals they are. Using the Manhattan Justice for Workers Collaborative as a model, Melinda will seek to increase reporting of criminal activities while giving workers the tools they need to bring complaints.
Protect Immigrant Workers
Queens has a rich and thriving immigrant community, but workers from this community are most likely to be targeted for a number of crimes and many are reluctant to report wage theft for fear of having their immigration status threatened. Melinda will have a multilingual team doing proactive outreach to workers while guaranteeing that no one will be subject to arrest for reporting workplace violations. She will hire a specific liaison to undocumented workers so that there is better dialogue between the District Attorney’s office, undocumented workers, and organizations working with undocumented workers.