Opinion: Combat wage theft to help further New York’s recovery from COVID-19

A coordinated effort must continue as the pandemic subsides to hold unscrupulous contractors accountable.

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“For 13 years, I worked in the field for dishonest construction contractors. Over the years, while I was trying to provide for my family, these contractors stole wages out of my paycheck … They lied about the hours I deserved to be paid for. They lied when my checks were late. They constantly tried to push the boundaries to see what they can get away with,” Eddie Perez, a member of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, recently testified before the state Assembly.

Across the country, workers like Perez and their families lose $8 billion a year to wage theft. Construction workers alone are robbed of $946 million annually. With the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the construction industry, it is more important than ever to ensure that hardworking New Yorkers get paid the wages they have earned. As the state Attorney General, the executive secretary-treasurer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters and assistant executive secretary-treasurer of the North Atlantic States Regional Councils of Carpenters, we are proud to be partners in a coordinated effort to protect workers like Perez. 

Wage theft is not an accident. It is a deliberate tactic and disturbing trend used by far too many contractors. A recent study found that contractors withhold at least $811.1 million a year in overtime pay. These staggering numbers are emblematic of a system that exploits workers without fear of consequence. Corrupt contractors cheat the system to reduce their costs with a range of illegal practices, from intentionally failing to pay full rates owed, misclassifying workers as independent contractors, misreporting hours worked to increase profits, and stealing workers’ wages outright.

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the vital role of the unionized construction industry in sustaining and growing New York’s economy. As we work to build back a stronger and better New York, wage theft continues to undermine our ability to reach a full economic recovery. We therefore must continue to work together to hold unscrupulous contractors accountable, and continue to advocate for and protect those who are cheated out of fair wages.  

New York’s elected officials are taking action. The office of the state Attorney General is committed to cracking down on repeat offenders and ensuring workers are guaranteed their fair wages. The office works with the Construction Wage Theft Task Force, which is a joint, statewide effort among law enforcement agencies focusing on combating corruption and crime within the construction industry, and it has had tremendous success in holding unscrupulous contractors accountable, including recovering more than half a million dollars from a Staten Island-based construction company that cheated workers out of overtime and unemployment benefits just this year, and filing criminal charges against a Long Island contractor taking advantage of workers on publicly-funded construction projects. 

Moreover, new legislation has been enacted to further protect workers. The General Contractor Liability Law, introduced by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Latoya Joyner and signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Labor Day 2021, S.2766/A.3350, combats wage theft from the top by holding general contractors accountable for the actions of their subcontractors. This is an important new tool for workers fighting to get paid wages they have earned.

Enacted in January, this law protects hardworking New Yorkers by eliminating loopholes that previously allowed general contractors to deny responsibility for offenses committed by subcontractors. Because general contractors can oversee hundreds of subcontractors on a major construction project, aggrieved workers were often powerless to hold their subcontractor employers accountable for stealing wages. This new law makes general contractors liable, ensuring that workers have a clearer path to retrieving unpaid wages and discouraging general contractors from working with irresponsible subcontractors.

While construction workers have the strength of a 20,000-member carpenters union to stand up for them, non-union workers, often over-represented by workers from immigrant and minority communities, are most affected by wage theft and have the least leverage to fight back. With the enactment of this bill, all workers in New York have the right to file a civil suit against contractors if a subcontractor withholds the wages that they are owed. Additionally, state prosecutors now have more power to hold unscrupulous contractors accountable and the state Attorney General’s office can take action against repeat offenders, keeping businesses with a history of robbing workers off job sites. 

The best way to fight wage theft is to ensure that workers and elected representatives work together to create common-sense laws that provide the protections that workers need, identify instances of theft, and use the protections in the law. By partnering as champions for workers, the Attorney General, NYCDCC, and NASRCC create the type of partnership that will support workers throughout the construction industry. We’re proud to stand together as steadfast advocates for the construction industry and its union and nonunion workers, to ensure opportunity and fair wages for everyone.

Letitia James is the state attorney general of New York; Joseph Geiger is executive secretary-treasurer of New York City District Council of Carpenters; and William Banfield is assistant to the executive secretary-treasure of the North Atlantic States Regional Councils of Carpenters.

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