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Immigrant Workers Hunt Back Wages on Long Island

New York’s minimum wage and proper overtime pay are the subject of many federal investigations on employers from low-wage industries on Long Island, who deny their workers their legal right to fair payment under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), leading to wage and hour violations. Long Island has a high population of Hispanic immigrants who fight to recover their wages every day.

Wages Cheated from Immigrant Workers Amount to Millions of Dollars 

Mama’s Pizzeria & Restaurant, Copiague

Fear and desperation are the feelings that drove an employee to work more than 70 hours a week at Mama’s Pizzeria and Restaurant in Copiague, N.Y., for a little more than $5 an hour.

“My boss used to pay us in cash and he paid us whatever he liked,” said the undocumented immigrant from Central America who did not want to use his real name for fear of losing his job at the restaurant. “He also used to deduct $40 from my salary for taxes.”

A U.S. Labor Department investigation found that the New York’s mandatory $7.25 minimum wage and proper overtime pay had been routinely denied to the 29- year-old immigrant for the past several years. What happened to him is not uncommon. In fact, statistics estimate that employers nationwide save millions of dollars a year by defying labor laws and underpaying employees.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Wage & Hour division recovered $176 million in back wages last year in the course of almost 26,500 cases covering 210,000 workers. In 2010, on Long Island alone, the Federal division recovered $3.6 million in back wages in the course of about 300 investigations covering 2,300 employees. The amount of money recovered has remained steady since 2008.

Immigrant workers are the most vulnerable to possible abuse. They are the ones who take the low-wage jobs and therefore are easier to exploit, according to Irv Miljoner, the Director of the Long Island District Office for the Federal U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

“I think it [disputes involving wages] is a little worse on Long Island from what I see. I talk to my counterparts around the country and they don’t typically have cases with $800,000 [in recovered wages],” said Mr. Miljoner. “There’s a higher density of immigrant [both documented and undocumented] workers here who can be exploited.”

In 2009, the Labor Department filed a lawsuit against Mama’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, in Copiague, for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In February, it recovered almost $800,000 in back wages and damages for 40 employees.

The Central American immigrant is from El Salvador. He has a wife and two children back home. He decided to come to the United States when his daughter went to sleep one night with empty stomach. He decided to do everything he could to change his economic situation. The problems began a few years ago when he went to work at Mama’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, the only place he has worked since he arrived to this country. He worked more than 40 hours a week for less than $300 and he managed to save some money to his family.

“Before the Labor Department came, we just had a 10 minutes break, if it was a busy day,” he said. “If it was a holiday and the owners closed the restaurant, they would deduct about a $100 from our salary.”

When the Labor Department came to the restaurant to investigate due to a complaint from one of the workers, it filed a suit because the restaurant employees were required to work 70 to 80 hours on many occasions without overtime compensation and were paid less than the federal minimum wage. The owners paid their employees partly in cash off the books, and kept no time or payroll records indicating their employees’ work hours, tips, wages and other conditions of employment, according to the investigation.

“They worked six out of seven days, sometimes seven days a week working straight through. They couldn’t take sick days or vacations,” said Roberto Quintana, the Mama’s Pizzeria case investigator of the Long Island District Office for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. “What kind of life is that? They pretty much were slaves. But unfortunately, a lot of them were undocumented and had this fear until one person had the guts to come into this office, brought more people and the case built on that.”

The law protects everyone regardless of immigration status, according to Miljoner. “Everyone who works must be paid at least the minimum wage for all that was worked, even if they are undocumented,” he said.

Two immigrants working in a vineyard

Now, the workers at Mama’s Pizzeria and Restaurant are paid by check, have a break, a day off and their amount of hours worked have decreased considerably, according to the worker. “Lately things have changed a lot. Now, they [owners] are stricter and treat better the workers, he said. “There was a time that they [owners] verbally abused the workers.”

Gaetano Pinello, one of the Mama’s Pizzeria and Restaurant owners, refused to comment when asked about the Labor Department investigation.

The problems at Mama’s Pizzeria, unfortunately, are common. The Labor Department filed many lawsuits last year against restaurants in Long Island. Imperial Pizzeria & Restaurant, in Lindenhurst, paid $51,395 in back wages to 11 employees for unpaid minimum wage, failure to pay overtime and failure to keep proper records. Metropolis Diner, in Medford, paid $44,000 in back wages to 16 employees for failure to pay overtime and failure to keep proper records. Cafe La Strada, in Hauppauge, paid $33,882 in back wages to nine employees for the same reasons.

For Carlos Munguia, 31, an undocumented immigrant from San Jose Morelos, Mexico, claims his situation it is even worse. Not only he had been working at a landscaping company and has not been paid his wages, but also he had an accident last summer while he was working and cut the upper most part of his foot with a lawn mower. He claims that the owner of the landscaping company, Oakwood Valley Builder Inc., in East Setauket, told him he would take care of the hospital bills. Munguia says, he spent a month at Stony Brook hospital and had three surgeries on his foot totaling $170,000. Now, he says he has discovered that the owner, Michael Papajohn, who lives in Hampton Bays, did not have insurance. Munguia says his lawyer, Jose Rivero, has been trying to contact Papajohn without success. The employer could not be reached for comment.

For Ecuadorian German Casamarca who arrived to the U.S. 11 years ago, it is the third time that he has worked for an employer who he says has refused to pay him. Last year, he worked for a the construction company Zhicay Corporation in Patchogue for five months and the employer still owes him $1,500, he says. “He always has lied to me saying that he wasn’t paid by the ones who hired him to do construction works,” says Casamarca. “I have three children here that I have to feed.”

When contacted Carlos Zhicay, the owner of the company also from Ecuador, said that when Casamarca started to work for him he told him that he wasn’t going to pay him until the house was finished. “There is no reason I didn’t want to pay him. I’ve just got the money for that work,” says Zhicay. “I have the $1,200 check in my house, but I’ve been busy and I haven’t called him yet. The deal was I’d pay him when the house was finished and I’d get the money.”

In Eastern Long Island, Sister Margaret Smyth, a nun who works for the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate, has been working on more than 70 cases a year for about five years helping immigrants to get their wages back. “I started it because people [documented and undocumented immigrants] came in and said: “I wasn’t paid.” I had to learn what you did in order to get that pay,” says Sister Margaret. “We connected to the State Department of Labor, to the Federal Department of Labor, to lawyers.”

Sister Margaret built up a way of helping people get their money. She sees more than 30 both undocumented and documented immigrants a day in her Riverhead office. Depending on how much money the company owes the immigrant, she goes to a different court with her lawyers. If the company owes the immigrant less than $3,000, she usually goes to the Justice Court. If the amount of money is up to $5,000, she goes to a District Court and if it is over $5,000 to the Supreme Court. If the there are many immigrants involved in a case and the company they work for makes over $500,000 a year, then she goes to the Federal Department of Labor .

Casamarca came to talk to Sister Margaret last month to see if she could help. He didn’t know what to do or where to go to recover his wages. The North Fork Hispanic Apostolate is the only place in Suffolk county, besides the Labor Department, where immigrants can go for help when they have these kind of legal issues. Sister Margaret has different lawyers working for her pro bono to assist the immigrants because they have no legal resources. Besides helping them with legal issues, Sister Margaret help immigrants in whatever they need. She provides them food, clothes and even plane tickets if they need to come back home.

Two landscaping workers

In Nassau, a similar organization called “The Workplace Project” also helps immigrants to recover their wages. It was founded in 1992 to give support to immigrant workers in Long Island. Omar Perez, the director, says in a month they 20 or 40 workers a month come to their office looking for help. They work with immigrants workers educating them about their rights. They teach them that the law protects everyone regardless of immigration status and also what it is minimum wage and overtime, so employers do not abuse them. Perez says the main reason employers don’t pay immigrants is the lack of knowledge about their rights. The organization never asks immigrants their immigration status because it’s not relevant. “By law, people have the same rights to get paid for the work they do regarding of their status,” Perez says. “We don’t know if they are documented or undocumented.”

Sister Margaret Smyth used to work alone, but six years ago, she met criminal lawyer Daniel G. Rodgers in court and they started to work together. She does all the paperwork and he assists her and represents her clients pro bono. “I help Sister Margaret because of penance,” said Rodgers when asked the reasons of helping Sister Margaret pro bono. “I was very bad when he was young, so now, I do good deeds.”

“One boss would go to different shape up sites and hire men, not pay them, then fire them, then go to another shape up site and repeat the process over and over,” said Rodgers when asked what was the most outrageous case he had.

“We lose most of our cases. Unless I get dollars in your pocket, I don’t see it as a win,” Rodgers says. They go to court and they can win, but it doesn’t mean that they get any money from the employers. The court cannot force the employers to pay the employees.

“One man should never steal another man’s labor. When somebody works for you, you are obliged to pay for the work that they have performed for you and it has nothing to do whether if you are legal or illegal in this country,” said Rodgers. “One has nothing to do with the other.”

According to Rodgers, they don’t charge any money because immigrants have no resources and they go month to month trying to feed their families.

The U.S. Labor Department on Long Island has been getting many complaints from immigrant communities in the last several years, mostly in certain low-wage industries such as restaurants, car washes or gas stations.
“In the near future, I see things continuing the same way. These industries are very competitive,” Mr. Miljoner said. ”There’s a low-profit margin and often the way to get a competitive advantage is through labor, cheap labor.”

In 1999, Mama’s pizzeria was also investigated by the Labor Department for violations of the minimum wage, overtime and record keeping requirements from October 1, 1997 through October 1, 1999. The restaurant paid $54,306.52 in back wages to its employees.

Quintana, the Department of Labor investigator, suspects that he will be back to Mama’s Pizzeria and Restaurant. “I get the sense that the owner didn’t get it,” Quintana said. “In other words he is just going to pay this and we may be back in a year, which is sad because to me I feel like I really haven’t done my job because I want to change attitudes.”

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