Hochul signs legislation on wage theft, employee free speech, increasing injured workers compensation

(Photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Hochul)
(Photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Hochul)

Governor Kathy Hochul signed a package of bills into law on Wednesday, Sept. 6, aimed at protecting employees in the workplace.

The tree bills allow prosecutors to seek stronger criminal penalties against employers who steal wages from workers by making wage theft a form of larceny. 

The legislation also prohibits employers from disciplining staff who decide not to attend meetings about the employer’s political or religious views.

Compensation for low-wage workers who are injured and unable to work has been increased too under the new legislation.

Hochul signed the bills into law at the New York City Central Labor Council’s 2023 Labor Day Parade breakfast reception, where she was flanked by lawmakers who sponsored the various bills.

“This legislation will help to ensure that all New Yorkers receive the benefits and protections that allow them to work with dignity,” Hochul said. 

“My administration is committed to making our state the most worker-friendly state in the nation, and I thank the bill sponsors for their partnership in our mission to establish the strongest and most robust protections right here in New York.”

(Photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Hochul)
Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking (Photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Hochul)

Around $3.2 billion in wages is stolen from more than 2 million New Yorkers every year, according to Queens Assembly member Catalina Cruz, who sponsored legislation known as the Wage Theft Accountability Act in the state Assembly. The bill elevates wage theft to a crime of larceny.

Cruz said the law arms prosecutors with a new powerful tool to go after greedy employers who steal wages.

“While wage theft disproportionately impacts low wage working-class New Yorkers, its repercussions are felt by all of us— from directly impacted workers to law-abiding businesses who must now face unfair competition,” Cruz said.

“Through this new law, we are sending a resounding message: wage theft will not be tolerated in our state. Together, we stand unwavering in our commitment to justice and fairness for every worker.”

Meanwhile, a bill known as the Worker’s Compensation Benefit Modernization Act, increases the minimum amount of compensation injured workers can receive if unable to work. The minimum weekly benefit currently stands at $150 per week, but this will be increased to $275 in 2024 and to $325 in 2025. By 2026, the minimum weekly benefit will be increased to one-fifth of the state average weekly wage.

Bronx Assembly member Latoya Joyner, who sponsored the bill in the state Assembly, said the legislation ensures a more secure future for those living with injuries.

“No worker should be left destitute because of a workplace injury and, as the rising cost of living squeezes the budgets of New York’s families, it is essential to raise the minimum benefit injured workers receive while they are disabled,” said Joyner, who is chair of the Assembly’s Labor Committee.

The third piece of legislation in the package of bills seeks to expand employee’s freedom of speech and conscience in the workplace. The measure prohibits employers from disciplining employees who opt not to participate in meetings sponsored by the employer concerning the employer’s views on political and religious matters.

Queens State Sen. Jessica Ramos sponsored the legislation in the state Senate and said the bill was important to create a welcoming working environment.

“You don’t check your First Amendment rights and freedom of conscience at the door when you clock in at work,” Cruz said.

“Political, partisan, and religious speech coming from an employer can be intimidating, but workers made it clear they are willing to fight back. We want to acknowledge their courage.”