New York Officials Battle Wage Theft in Construction Industry

“By coordinating our efforts across county lines, we’re putting the industry on notice,” Mr. Vance said. “If you fail to pay workers in Manhattan, you can’t just set up shop elsewhere in the region and repeat the same crime.”

Low-wage workers across a range of industries nationwide are often denied adequate overtime pay and paid less than the minimum wage, research shows. Sometimes workers are not paid at all.

The allegations presented by New York prosecutors in nine cases across five jurisdictions reveal a pattern: Employers often falsified payroll summaries and underpaid workers by issuing bad checks or failing to pay the prevailing wage. One construction company failed to pay $13,000 in wages, and another as much as $700,000, prosecutors say.

The $2.5 million in unpaid wages announced by prosecutors may seem insignificant compared to the estimated $1 billion in lost wages that affect tens of thousands of workers in New York each year. But officials and worker advocates say the cases may deter employers from conducting such wage violations in the future.

“These are examples of the worst cases out there,” said Manuel Castro, executive director at New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a group that advocates for immigrant workers. “We’re in a construction boom in New York, which means there are more opportunities for exploitation.”

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The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., and other New York prosecutors say they have stepped up efforts to prosecute employers who fail to pay workers the wages they are owed.

Credit
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

In New York, workers lose approximately $10 million to $20 million per week in unpaid wages, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor. And New York workers who are not citizens of the United States are three times more likely to be cheated, the report said.

Immigrant workers like Mr. Ortega, who speaks little English, are susceptible to underpayment because of language barriers. And immigrants in the country illegally are especially prone to wage theft because they are often fearful of speaking out, several studies show.

Many construction workers are hired through informal agreements, and that makes them more susceptible to wage theft, said Maria Figueroa, a director of labor and policy research at the Worker…

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