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Sen. Ramos and members of New Immigrant Community Empowerment. Photo: NICE
Sen. Ramos and members of New Immigrant Community Empowerment. Photo: NICE

Jessica Ramos’ wage theft bill passes, one signature away from a new reality for New York construction workers

The New York State Senator is closing in on completing a major legislative victory for workers across the state.

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In a victory for New York construction workers, Democrats in the state’s Senate approved a bill that could hold contractors responsible for wage theft committed by subcontractors.

On Wednesday, June 2, Senate bill S4394 was passed, which seeks to end the predatory practice of wage theft in the construction industry by placing liability on contractors and subcontractors.

“No New Yorker can or should work for free,” New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, sponsor of the bill, wrote in a tweet.

S4394 passed the Assembly and is now heading to Gov. Cuomo’s desk. If he signs the measure, general contractors could be held liable for or even face civil violations if a subcontractor on a job site is found cheating workers out of their pay.

Joseph Geiger, the executive secretary-treasurer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, told New York Daily News that this is a landmark win that will protect exploited workers and return much-needed tax revenue to the state.

Geiger said that the measure will create a “fairer, safer playing field for all hardworking New Yorkers.”

Union leaders across NYC have championed the measure as a way to hold unethical contractors accountable.

On Monday, May 24, the New York State Building and Construction Council held a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Albany in support of the legislation, advocating for protection of their workers, as well as overtime and benefits.

According to bill’s supporters, many of the exploited workers are non-union or undocumented immigrants. In 2017, around 2.1 million New York residents lost $3.2 billion of income due to wage theft, according to a study by the Center for Popular Democracy

Manuel Castro, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), told AMNY that wage theft takes advantage of the state’s most vulnerable workers.

“Our hard working immigrant workers deserve better, and New York lawmakers have the opportunity right now to show these workers that their livelihoods and their wellbeing matters,” Castro said.

If signed, S4394 would grant general contractors new authority to supervise the books of subcontractors to better secure the fair and complete wages of all workers. 

“Under the incredible leadership of our Senate Majority Leader, the New York State Senate is taking action to protect construction workers from the hundreds of millions of dollars that are stolen from them every year by unscrupulous contractors and subcontractors,” said Ramos. 

Typically, a worker will file a lawsuit against their direct employer to recover their wages. The bill would ensure that construction managers are liable for the actions of their employees and it gives the industry more incentive to “better self-police,” according to a legislative memo

The latest version of the bill, which was originally introduced in January, offers a few liability exceptions, permitting construction managers to withhold wages in cases where subcontractors do not provide certain payroll information. 

Liability is also limited in cases where legal action has been taken. In this case, managers are obligated to compensate for wage theft that occurred no more than three years before the claim was filed in court. 

Gary LaBarbera, president of the state and city chapters of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said that the measure is an excellent tool to fight back against wage theft for all workers on privately-funded projects. 

“From day-one, this legislation was all about putting the interests of working people ahead of those of unscrupulous contractors in the construction industry,” LaBarbera said in a statement.

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