SWEAT and tears: Workers, pols rally in Midtown urging Cuomo to help stop wage theft

Protesters carried signs stating, "SWEAT protects honest businesses and punishes wage stealing bosses."
Photo by Zishun Ning

Advocates and elected officials demanded the enactment of the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill outside of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office on April 13.

Tuesday morning, the SWEAT Coalition — a group of 85 grass root organizations — gathered alongside unpaid workers, politicians, and others to stand with banners and signs outside of 633 3rd Avenue, chanting “Pass SWEAT now!” The demonstrators urged Governor Cuomo to put an immediate stop to wage theft by supporting the SWEAT bill currently in the state legislature.

“Wage theft is running rampant, and it affects all of us here. Some of us don’t get minimum wage, no overtime or no tip. Some of us are told, ‘It’s a pandemic,’” said JoAnn Lum, a member of the National Mobilization Against SweatShop (NMASS) and SWEAT Coalition, adding that some also work 24-hour shifts but are only paid for 12 hours.

“This is all wage theft. It’s a crime. It’s the biggest crime in the country. It’s more than armed theft and robbery combined,” Lum added, explaining that these crimes are committed and even with rulings pushing for reimbursement, the findings are not enforced due to businesses hiding their assets and claiming they do not have funds.

Advocates shared that approximately $1 billion in wage theft occurs annually in New York State. Photo by Zishun Ning

Since the dawn of the pandemic, approximately 631,000 jobs were lost and during that time those who were able to hold onto their employment battled rampant wage theft. Protesters say some employers took advantage of the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19 by refusing to pay their workers minimum wage, overtime, and for all of the hours worked.

The struggle of living paycheck to paycheck became impossible, and as workers turned to the Department of Labor, advocates at the demonstration state that rulings were weakly enforced, leaving many empty-handed.

“We see this happen time and time again. The workers are exploited. They are not paid what they worked to earn. The owners go out of business, bankruptcy, or changes the name and you can never track them down. So, the money and the judgment you earn in court is not worth the piece of paper it’s written on. This has been going on forever. Today we say enough is enough,” said Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal outside of Governor Cuomo’s office.

State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal demand that Gov. Cuomo pass the SWEAT bill to stop wage theft in New York. Photo by Zishun Ning

Rosenthal explained that in the past, Cuomo has vetoed a version of the SWEAT bill, but elected officials are not letting this deter them from fighting for workers who are being shortchanged. She shared that she has seen cases over the past year of food delivery workers who’ve put their lives on the line during the pandemic and yet still had their tips stolen from them by their employers, and much of this money makes the difference between paying rent and putting food on the table. 

Wage theft is not an unheard-of experience in New York, which on average experiences roughly around $1 billion in earnings being denied to employees.

Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos and other elected officials have backed the SWEAT bill to force employers to take accountability and to provide workers their full unpaid wages by placing a lien on the business. SWEAT puts more force on employers—while also serving as a deterrent—to fess up money owed by having the Department of Labor and the State’s Attorney General’s office freeze the business’ assets until an investigation is completed.

“People need to be paid for every hour they work,” Ramos said at the start of the rally. “The blood sweat and tears that have gone into building this city must be rightfully compensated. That’s why we are here for our money. We want our money.”

amNewYork Metro reached out to Cuomo’s office for comment, and is awaiting a response.

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