ITHACA, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Workers’ Center celebrated several victories and signs of progress for New York workers’ rights with a party on Wednesday, in coordination with downstate workers’ centers that joined via a video livestream. About 30 people participated in the festivities at TCWC’s hub on the Commons, including Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, who co-sponsored several bills that the center has pushed for across legislative sessions.
The celebratory mood was stoked by the New York State Legislature’s passage of the Secure Wages Earned Against Theft Bill, which is now awaiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature. TCWC coordinator Pete Meyers said the SWEAT bill is “extremely close to our hearts,” citing local advocates’ participation in a coalition pushing for its passage over the past five years. The SWEAT bill is just one of several measures that TCWC has long pushed for to become law since Democrats took control of the New York Legislature in January, though. Here’s a rundown of the major areas where local labor advocates are celebrating gains:
The Secure Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill
The SWEAT bill was created to help workers recover wages stolen by their employers. Previously, there were loopholes in state law that employers could use to avoid paying their workers if found guilty of wage theft, essentially allowing employers to hide or transfer assets.
This scenario has played out at several workplaces in Ithaca, including the Green Cafe, which closed in April 2010. A Department of Labor investigation found the business owed $623,000 to its workers in Ithaca, but Meyers said that the money never made its way to the employees.
“Because the SWEAT bill didn’t exist, the owner of the restaurants appealed to the Board of Industrial Appeals,” Meyers said, and they never had to pay workers because they were shielded by a limited liability corporation.
Rob Brown, operations manager for TCWC, said wage theft is a prevalent issue in the United States mainly due to the power dynamics that make employees vulnerable to employers.
“Wage theft is the largest form of theft in the United States compared to all other types of theft,” Brown said. “Employers stealing from workers is greater than all thefts combined by a minimum rate of five, more likely 10, mostly because of the power employers have over their employees.”
TCWC has been a part of the upstate-downstate SWEAT Coalition for the past five years, which is celebrating the bill’s progress and urging the governor to sign it. The SWEAT bill passed the Senate and Assembly in June and, if signed by the governor, would become law.
Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (FFLPA)
The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which passed both the Senate and the Assembly in late June and was signed by the governor, grants agricultural workers rights previously unavailable to them due to their exclusion from federal labor protections. With this law, farmworkers gained the right to collective bargaining and unemployment benefits. The bill also requires workers to be paid overtime after 60 hours of work each week and mandates that employers offer a day of rest per week.
The legislation that passed was significantly weaker than what was initially proposed, with a 60-hour overtime threshold rather than 40 hours and a clause defining strikes, slowdowns and work stoppages as unfair labor practices.
“I’m almost skeptical the deal promises what it promises,” Carlos Gutierrez, health and safety trainer at TCWC, said. “But we’ll see what happens along the way, how they’ll implement it.”
Gutierrez said there are still issues with overtime pay and access to rights within industries that are protected by older legislature like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which he said makes him wonder how the government will enforce these new standards in the agricultural sector. But, he said, it’s progress.
“This is something new; we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “We need to continue to protect what we’ve got and to acquire more rights and more benefits.”
In addition to new legislative protections for farmworkers, in May the New York State Appellate Court ruled that farmworkers have the right to organize. The ruling came from a case brought to court by Crispin Hernandez, a member of the Workers’ Center in Syracuse, who was fired from his job in retaliation for organizing fellow workers.
Green Light New York
The Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, more commonly known as the ‘Green Light’ bill, was signed by the governor in early June and allows New Yorkers to apply for driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status. Applicants will need to meet all existing eligibility requirements for a license, but will not need to have a social security number.
The Public Safety Committee of the Tompkins County Legislature previously sent a resolution to Albany urging the passage of the bill, as did the City of Ithaca’s Common Council. This act was a joint priority of the Upstate NY Workers’ Center Alliance, which was founded in part by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center. The Tompkins County Sheriff, Derek Osborne, has been an outspoken supporter of the measure and has said it would improve public safety.
Meyers said he thinks the law is a positive step because “if someone is going to be here, you’d rather have them be driving safely and with insurance. Whatever one’s stance is on immigration or documentation, people are here.”
Expanded workplace sexual harassment protections
New York state has made a few key changes to workplace sexual harassment law, including extending the statute of limitations for sexual harassment complaints from one to three years, prohibiting non-disclosure agreements related to discrimination and lowering the burden of proof for claims by removing the requirement that harassment be “severe and pervasive.”
The bill also expands protections for classes of workers including contractors and domestic workers and requires employers to provide materials related to sexual harassment programs in the primary language of employees.
Brown said the changes are a step forward, but said some don’t go far enough.
“The state is actually recognizing how hard it is to come forward with an allegation,” he said. “Honestly, three years isn’t enough. The time involved in processing the trauma and dehumanization is longer than that. But a three-year statute is way better than one.”
“There’s a lot more opportunity for people to bring their complaints and have their situation heard and have justice dealt,” Brown said.
Featured image: Ithaca attendees watched speakers in Manhattan via livestream. (Becky Mehorter/The Ithaca Voice)