Exploited Workers Task Force Launches Investigation into the Exploitation of Workers in the Dry Cleaning Industry; Places State on a Path to Ban Use of PERC
Governor to Award $5 Million in Grants to Improve Worker Health and Safety Across New York
Governor Signs Executive Order to Establish Permanent Task Force on Employee Exploitation and Misclassification
Task Force Releases One-Year Report, Recommendations to Protect Workers Against Predatory Practices
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that the Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation has directed 1,547 businesses to pay nearly $4 million in back wages and damages to more than 7,500 workers since its inception in July 2015. The Governor also announced several initiatives to improve worker health and safety, including a multi-agency investigation into the exploitation of dry cleaning workers and a coordinated effort to ban harmful chemicals, such as perchlorethylene (PERC), that are commonly used in the industry.
The State will also launch a new $5 million grant program and RFP for non-profit organizations to expand services to help exploited workers. The Governor marked the one-year anniversary of the task force at an event in Manhattan where he signed Executive Order No. 159 to establish a permanent, statewide task force on employee exploitation and misclassification. The announcements follow the release of the Task Force’s one-year report, which includes recommendations to protect workers against predatory practices.
“In New York, we believe that anyone who seeks to build a better future for themselves can do so in the Empire State – and we will not allow the unscrupulous practices of businesses to stand in the way,” Governor Cuomo said. “From creating the first-of-its kind Task Force, to enacting unprecedented protections for nail salon workers, our administration has made great strides to root out injustices in industries where employees are routinely victimized – and today’s announcement is proof that our efforts are working. Through these actions, we are continuing our progress to revive the American Dream and ultimately chart a better future for the hardworking men and women of New York.”
Task Force Recovering $4 Million in Back Wages
Since first launched in July 2015, the Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation has initiated an aggressive, multi-agency effort to enforce the labor laws, with a particular focus on wage recovery in the nail salon, restaurant, dry cleaning, construction, landscaping and domestic worker industries. Workers in these industries are frequent victims of wage theft and are often subjected to unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, unstable or unscheduled hours and illegal deductions for supplies, training or uniforms.
Over the past year, more than 1,500 investigations and inspections have been conducted statewide. During the course of the investigations, the Task Force found that thousands of workers were denied full wages under the law. This included failure to pay minimum wage, failure to pay overtime, misappropriation of tips and other wage denials. In addition, workers were not covered by correct workers compensation policies to protect workplace health and safety.
At today’s event, Governor Cuomo was joined by workers from the Empire Szechuan Valley Restaurant in New York City, Alejandro Mendoza and Jovita Villanueva-Tapia. A Task Force investigation found that the husband and wife, and four of their Empire Szechuan co-workers, were not correctly paid for overtime hours. The task force negotiated a settlement with the owner for the six workers to be paid a total of $204,500 in 24 equal monthly payments.
The negotiated payment plan is part of the approximately $4 million in unpaid wages and damages assessed by the task force on behalf of exploited workers. The victimized workers are largely immigrants.
“Workers like me shouldn’t have to worry about having our wages stolen,” Alejandro Mendoza, an Empire Szechuan restaurant worker said. “We work hard and deserve to get paid what we’re owed. I thank the Governor and his task force for taking our problem seriously, protecting our rights and making sure we get justice.”
Multi-Agency Investigation into Exploitation of Workers in the Dry Cleaning Industry; Puts New York State on Path to Ban PERC
Since 2015, the task force has undertaken a thorough review of the acute impact of dangerous conditions and wage theft in the dry cleaning industry. As a result, the task force will launch a multi-agency investigation into hazardous working conditions, which will include the use of dangerous chemicals that are commonly used in this industry.
As part of those efforts, the Governor is instructing the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health to pursue critical environmental and public health protections and put New York on the path to ban the use of PERC, a chemical identified as a “likely” carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and commonly used in the industry.
In addition, the state will implement nail salon ventilation regulations to make nail salons in New York the safest for workers and consumers in the nation. These regulations, combined with the state’s efforts to ban dry cleaners’ use of PERC will put New York at the forefront of environmental health and safety standards.
In the coming weeks and months, the task force will also focus on working conditions in the home health care, car wash and agriculture industries.
$5 Million RFP to Protect Workers’ Health and Safety
The Governor also announced that $5 million will be awarded through a competitive RFP to non-profit organizations to help exploited workers come out of the shadows and obtain the help they need and deserve. Exploited workers are often isolated by cultural and language barriers and believe they are helpless in defending themselves against workplace abuse.
This funding will be awarded through grants to address systemic health and safety problems that many exploited workers face. Grant recipients will develop business-driven initiatives to increase compliance and reduce costs, including compliance workshops, consultation programs, hazard assessment checks, and corrective planning technical assistance. Eligible grant recipients may include occupational health centers, legal services, and other not-for-profits working to reduce worker injuries, increase safety, and provide assistance to workers.
More than $5 million in grants will be directed toward helping exploited workers undergo clinical evaluations through the Occupational Health Clinics and other not-for-profit health care providers able to offer diagnoses of job-related symptoms and help workers navigate the workers’ compensation system.
The funding will also be used to expand the On-Site Business Consultation Program with a particular focus on the industries with the highest injury rate —construction and manufacturing, home health care, dry cleaning and agriculture. The State Department of Labor and the State Workers Compensation Board will provide the on-site consultation.
In New York, we believe that anyone who seeks to build a better future for themselves can do so in the Empire State – and we will not allow the unscrupulous practices of businesses to stand in the way.
Executive Order No. 159
On the one-year anniversary of the task force, the Governor signed an executive order establishing a permanent task force on employee exploitation and misclassification. The new task force represents a merger of the Exploited Worker Task Force, the Nail Salon Industry Enforcement Task Force and the Joint Enforcement Task Force on Employee Misclassification, which will combine these comprehensive efforts and result in additional, innovative tools to assist state agencies in protecting vulnerable, low-wage workers.
The new executive order will expand its focus to examine a variety of ways in which workers are exploited such as unpaid wages, unpaid overtime, health and safety violations, and other instances of worker exploitation. The effort spans 15 target industries, including:
- Car Washes
- Home Health Care
- Janitorial Services
- Nail Salons
- Trucking and Waste Disposal
The task force includes 13 state agency partners:
- Department of Labor
- Department of State
- Department of Health
- Workers’ Compensation Board
- Department of Tax and Finance
- Department of Agriculture and Markets
- Office of Children and Family Services
- Office of Faith Based Services
- Division of Criminal Justice Services
- State Police
- Division of Human Rights
- Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance
- State Liquor Authority
The newly merged task force will bring together unemployment insurance investigators, wage investigators and workers compensation investigators with the investigators and personnel of task force agencies to comprehensively scrutinize employers engaged in the underground economy. The new tools to augment enforcement outcomes for all exploited workers include:
- Extended joint agency enforcement: Enforcement units throughout the state who currently investigate tips will be expanded to include more agencies covering more employers and more industries.
- Greater agency enforcement resources: More agencies working together means more investigators and more capacity to protect vulnerable, low-wage workers. Including private investigators that can be hired through a grant recently awarded to JETF.
- Expanded referrals to district attorneys for criminal prosecution: The procedure of referring cases to county district attorneys who prosecute wage theft and unemployment insurance fraud will be expanded to include all exploited worker industries.
- Expanded tip hotline: The existing hotline that receives tips from community groups of alleged misclassification will be expanded to include all exploited worker industries.
One Year Task Force Report
The Governor’s multi-agency Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation was created to protect workers in a variety of industries in which they are disproportionately victims of wage theft, subjected to unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, unstable or unscheduled hours and illegal deductions for supplies, training, and uniforms. Enforcement efforts focus on industries with the highest rates of employer non-compliance and where workers, oftentimes immigrants, are least likely to come forward, for fear of retaliation.
The task force’s advisory committee, consisting of labor, business and civil rights leaders, provided Governor Cuomo with a variety of recommendations that have been implemented statewide, including amending payroll card regulations to protect workers’ wages against predatory practices; establishing a process for state agencies to issue U Visa Certifications and T Visa Endorsements for immigrant victims of crimes; and expanding the capacity of the Office for New Americans to represent U and T Visa applicants. The Advisory Committee’s recommendations and the work of the task force are detailed in the task force one year report, which can be viewed here.
The Task Force works in partnership with state agencies and an advisory committee that is charged with providing legislative, regulatory and administrative recommendations to the administration. Committee members include:
The advisory committee members are:
- Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU
- Esta Bigler, Cornell University ILR School
- Steve Choi, New York Immigration Coalition
- Anne Erickson, Empire Justice Center
- Hector Figueroa, 32BJ
- George Gresham, 1199
- Gary La Barbera, Trades
- Dean Norton, Farm Bureau
- Peter Ward, HTC
- Lewis O. Papenfuse, Worker Justice Center
- Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union
- Ted Potrikus, Retail Council of New York
- Javier Valdes and Deborah Axt, Make the Road New York
- Danny Wegman, Wegmans
- Kathryn Wylde, Partnership for New York City
Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said, “Over the last five years, the Governor has emerged as a leading champion for those in the shadows – giving them a voice and bringing justice to their cause. Today’s actions against worker exploitation send a message loud and clear – New York State has zero tolerance for those who cowardly disparage the rights of any worker and disregard the rule of law. We applaud the Governor for his commitment to this cause.
Steven Choi, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition said, "The NYIC has been proud to be part of the Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation that has made significant strides in the fight for workers' rights, particularly for immigrants who are often the most vulnerable workers. The numbers speak for themselves: $4 million in unpaid wages and damages for vulnerable workers who would not have seen that rightfully earned money otherwise. With the Task Force and additional initiatives announced today, we stand with Governor Cuomo as he sends a clear message to workers that New York State is on their side."
Anne Erickson, President & CEO of Empire Justice Center said, “Far too often, vulnerable New Yorkers are forced to stay in workplaces where they are consistently taken advantage of and are left empty handed after a hard days work. Empire Justice Center was pleased when one year ago the Governor created the Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation, to put a focus on dealing with unscrupulous employers running rampant in this state. I applaud the Governor for his commitment to ending the injustices working men and women face and look forward to the continuation of the work of this Task Force to carry essential worker protections efforts into the future. We applaud the Governor for making the Task Force permanent and look forward to continuing to be part of this critical work.”
Gary Labarbera, President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York said, “From passing a $15 minimum wage and a robust paid family leave plan, to creating the Exploited Workers Task Force, Governor Cuomo has been a long-time friend to and an advocate for the labor community. Today, New York is expanding on this successful task force to not only protect exploited workers from illegal practices, but ensure their health and safety remain a top priority. This is an example of the transformative change that can be created throughout partnerships between the labor movement and government, and I look forward to restoring justice for exploited workers across the state.”
Kathryn Wylde, Partnership for New York City President & CEO said, “The Task Force to End Worker Exploitation has made tremendous strides towards ending worker exploitation. Protecting vulnerable workers and guaranteeing equitable treatment is in everyone’s best interests, including businesses. By bringing employers, advocates, and union leaders together to work through these issues, we avoid contentious situations and we ensure that all parties are treated fairly.”
New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said, “Governor Cuomo’s actions today send the right message that all workers deserve safe working conditions, fair pay and to be treated with dignity and respect. We commend the governor for his continued commitment to workers in our state who although often unseen, unheralded and even unregarded are the backbone of our communities. We are only a truly enlightened society when those who have the least, are treated the same as those who have the most.”
Manuel Castro, Executive Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment said, “I thank Governor Cuomo for his unwavering commitment to protecting vulnerable working men and women across the state and helping them regain the voices they have been deprived of for far too long. New York is bolstering our commitment to the American Dream and sending the message that if you work hard, you can succeed. Under Governor Cuomo, this state is taking a transformative step in its fight against worker abuse and we are proud to be a part of this effort.”
Charlene Obernauer, Executive Director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health said, “Worker exploitation is a plight that has existed for far too long and has affected countless families throughout the state of New York. The Governor’s Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation is tirelessly working to right the unethical wrongs of thousands of businesses throughout the state that have illegally withheld wages and safe work places for their employees. Every worker deserves to be treated with respect and equality for their labor, and with today’s announcement, that is exactly what New York is doing. Under Governor Cuomo, New York is setting an example for the rest of the nation and we are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in this effort.”
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