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Unpaid NY workers' claims languish amid case backlog, advocates say

A report estimates the state is only recouping a fraction of the unpaid compensation owed to New Yorkers.

The state Department of Labor does not employ

The state Department of Labor does not employ enough investigators to examine wage theft complaints, according to advocates.  Photo Credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt

Understaffing at the state Department of Labor and case backlogs has made it harder for some 300,000 underpaid New Yorkers to recover millions of dollars in earned but unpaid compensation, according to a report slated to be released Tuesday.

Between 2013 and 2015, the DOL helped workers collect an average of $27 million annually in mandated pay, such as the full minimum hourly wage, overtime compensation and tips, according to a report authored by the workers' rights groups, Make the Road New York and the Center for Popular Democracy. But state investigators were not able to conclude thousands of cases during that period and the $27 million recouped is a fraction of owed wages across the state, according to Rebecca Miller, one of the report's authors.

By some estimates, employers did not pay an average of $965 million annually owed to New Yorkers between 2013 and 2015, according to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, which used census data to look for what portion of respondents were reporting earning sub-minimum wage to extrapolate about the scope of this issue. During that period, an average of 300,000 New Yorkers each year did not receive the full pay they were entitled to, according to the report. 

“We knew that the Department of Labor has to deal with a lot of (wage-theft) cases, but to see these numbers is still shocking,” said Deborah Axt, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, who noted Make the Road and the Center for Popular Democracy received DOL data through Freedom of Information Law requests.

The report's researchers note the DOL has employed about 114 investigators for 15 years, while the number of wage-theft cases assigned to each investigator has grown from 73 in 2008 to 142 in 2017. Nearly 16,400 wage-theft cases were pending at the end of 2017, according to the report. Those who file wage-theft complaints with the state currently have to wait an average of two years for a resolution, the analysis said. 

James Rogers, deputy commissioner for worker protection at DOL, said the agency has no backlog and 90 percent of its investigations are completed within a year. Some cases are open because of employer appeals or technicalities, including workers not reporting receiving the recovered wages, DOL representatives said.

"I don't know where they came up with their numbers but it wasn't based in reality," Rogers said in a statement. "The real numbers show that DOL is the most effective labor regulator in the nation, recovering and returning over $35 million to nearly 30,000 workers each and ever year. The next closest state — California — only disburses $18 million."

Beyond the DOL, workers can pursue unpaid wages by contacting the attorney general's office or filing a case in civil court, the agency noted. 

The report recommended the state provide the DOL with funding to hire additional investigators. It also called on the state legislature to pass increase the funding to the Department of Labor and for the Legislature to pass a measure that would allow an employee or a whistleblower to file complaints on behalf of the state, which a court would then rule on.

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed Deborah Axt's quote to one of the author's of Make the Road New York's report.. 

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