Wage theft is the most common and costly form of theft in the world, causing millions of workers to lose billions of dollars collectively every year. Congress has estimated that wage theft costs U.S. workers more than $15,000,000,000 per year. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) makes wage theft illegal across all 50 states.
Not only does wage theft cause untold amounts of damage to everyday workers according to the Economic Policy Institute, but it’s also the most undetected and unpunished form of theft. When workers don’t know their rights, companies engaging in wage theft can go unreported, lining their pockets with wages that rightfully belong to their employees.
Unfortunately, the state of New York is no different. According to a recent report by The Center for Popular Democracy, every year more than 2.1 million New Yorkers get cheated out of a total of $3.2 billion in wages and benefits that they’ve rightfully earned.
The problems continue even after New York passed the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2010 to try and fight wage theft in the state. As an employee, knowing your rights is the first step to fighting against wage theft and recovering the total wages you’re owed.
What Is the Wage Theft Law in New York?
New York’s Wage Theft Prevention Act was created to protect employees from wage theft and impose penalties on employers who engage in wage theft. Under the law:
- Companies must provide written wage notices and paystubs to all employees in English and their primary language, including wage rate and overtime information
- Employers must keep payroll records for at least 6 years
- It is illegal for a company to retaliate against an employee for making a wage theft complaint, with penalties of up to $20,000 per violation
- Employees get a proportion of the penalties received from their companies
Suppose the Department of Labor determines that your employer has committed wage theft. The government can issue an Order to Comply demanding that your employer pay back 100% of your unpaid wages plus interest and civil penalties for additional violations.
You also have the power to file an employment lawsuit against your company, especially if the NY Department of Labor declines to investigate or prosecute the case. In a successful lawsuit, you can get damages for your unpaid wages and any other losses you experienced because of your employer’s actions – including the emotional toll of being a target of retaliation.
What Is Wage Theft and How Does It Happen?
Wage theft can be as simple as skimming tips. But in many cases, it’s not so obvious.
As an employee, you get certain rights and benefits under the law, such as minimum wage protections, overtime regulations, lunch and rest breaks, and legally protected leave. These benefits translate into real value for companies – so if your employer is denying you these rights, they are illegally keeping dollars in their pocket that rightfully belong to you.
Sometimes, employers bank on workers not knowing their rights in order to cut legal corners and save on payroll or benefits. That’s why across the U.S., companies have the legal duty to make sure that their employees are aware of their wage-related rights, usually by posting visible notices or emailing workers a summary in a language that they understand.
In some cases, a single employee’s wage theft might be just the tip of the iceberg. Wage theft often involves a pattern of poor record keeping and workers’ rights violations. If enough employees are affected, you could all have a class action lawsuit against your employer.
Most Common Examples of Wage Theft in New York
Knowing what wage theft looks like can help you catch it happening in the real world – whether the wages being illegally withheld belong to you or another worker. Below are examples of the most common forms of wage theft in the workplace that you might encounter in New York.
- Your construction crew takes on a project contracted at $22 per hour but by the time you complete your work, you end up getting paid only $16 per hour.
- For months, you get paid your regular hourly wage even though you work over 40 hours per week. When you realize what’s happening, you tell your company’s HR department. Shortly after, you stop getting overtime shifts. Even though you don’t change your behavior, your performance reviews take a turn for the worse in the following weeks. Soon, your company puts you on an improvement plan or fires you.
- You sign a new job contract that promises $20 per hour. On your first day, your manager tells you that you actually start at $18 per hour and eventually work your way up to $20. You’re not happy about the situation but you don’t feel like you can speak up because you’re new, so you end up working at the lower rate for over a year.
- The state of New York raises its minimum wage but your company delays the increase for a few months or fails to increase your pay to the new rate completely.
- An entire crew of farm workers gets paid $10 per hour, which is below New York’s minimum wage. Anyone who speaks up about this gets dismissed immediately.
- You’re a delivery driver for a mail courier company. Your employer insists that you only get paid for time worked while you’re driving, not when you’re loading or unloading the truck. As a result, you lose out on hundreds of hours of wages.
- You work for a company as an independent contractor even though leadership treats you like an employee, with regular work hours and even subordinates that you manage. As a result, you don’t get the same benefits and bonuses that actual employees do.
- Your boss makes you work through your legally mandated lunch break, take your lunch break at your desk, or work while you eat instead of allowing you that time off.
- Your employer regularly makes you keep working but clock out before you hit overtime. Although these extra overtime hours aren’t “required,” they are unofficially encouraged by management, who make promotion decisions based on who works the most hours.
- You work at a restaurant that makes the servers share tips with management.
In these types of cases, you could file a complaint with the New York Department of Labor or file a lawsuit in civil court. You could recover back pay, penalties, and even interest on any wages you’re owed. An employment lawyer can help you understand your options.
The worse your employer’s conduct, the more damages you can expect to recover. In extreme cases, successful wage theft lawsuits can even recover punitive damages, which are meant to punish companies for especially bad behavior or patterns of illegal conduct.
How Can You Report Wage Theft in New York?
New York has a Wage Theft Task Force with a hotline and online reporting system for employees who suspect that they’re experiencing wage theft.
But filing a wage theft complaint can be overwhelming when it’s just you against your company. As an employee, your employer determines whether you can pay your mortgage or keep your health insurance. If your company is already engaging in wage theft violations, it’s already engaging in misconduct. Management may not react well if you call them out.
That’s why it’s important to work with a local employment lawyer who can help you:
- Determine whether you should file a complaint or pursue a lawsuit,
- Take steps that protect yourself against further harm,
- Gather the strongest evidence to back up your case, and
- Recover as much as possible to get you back the wages that were stolen from you.
At Mirza Law, our experienced New York employment attorneys can help. It’s important to act quickly as soon as you suspect foul play so that you can start gathering evidence and stop the wage theft from continuing. Contact us now to get started with your free case consultation.