GALLUP WORKERS FIRST TO FILE WAGE THEFT COMPLAINTS AFTER SETTLEMENT REACHED IN LAWSUIT AGAINST THE DEPARTMENT OF WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS
December 21, 2017
GALLUP, NM - On Thursday, three health care workers filed wage theft complaints with the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) collectively claiming thousands in unpaid wages. The complaints are among the first to be filed in the state after a settlement agreement with DWS was announced that ensures the agency will carry out its duty to enforce New Mexico's strong anti-wage theft laws.
All three workers claim that Amazing Grace, a healthcare service provider for people with disabilities, failed to pay them overtime for hours worked over 40 hours per week.
"Everyone deserves to be paid all the hours they worked," said Janice Peterson, member of the Navajo Nation who claims Amazing Grace failed to pay overtime pay. "For years, I had to take the company cell phone with me after I clocked out and was obligated to answer calls from our clients working well into the night without full overtime pay. I decided to file my complaint because I was not alone."
After seeking information about their rights from Somos Gallup, an affiliate of of Somos Un Pueblo Unido in McKinley County, the women decided to file their complaints at the New Mexico Workforce Connection center in Gallup, one of over 20 such offices across the state that connects workers to employers and provides training and other resources.
"Wage theft cuts even deeper here in Gallup," said Francine Boyd, and member of the Navajo Nation who claims Amazing Grace also is claiming unpaid wages. "I was forced to work through my lunch break without pay. Workers need every single dollar to support their families, and in places like McKinley county, we can't afford to lose one cent."
"This is a real problem that affects many workers in our community," said Madeline Cadman, and member of the Navajo Nation who claims Amazing Grace also owes her overtime. "We cannot allow employers to get away with stealing our hard-earned money."
In January, workers and workers' rights organizations from across the state, including Somos Un Pueblo Unido, filed a lawsuit against DWS claiming the state agency failed to investigate and resolve wage claims and turned away workers. On Wednesday, the plaintiffs announced a settlement agreement with DWS that would ensure victims of wage theft, including those in rural communities, would have access to a fair process addressing their claims.
"Wage theft in rural communities is particularly difficult for families because there aren't a lot of job opportunities," said Jose "Pancho" Olivas, a member of Somos Gallup and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against DWS. "Many of us fear retaliation in a place where everyone knows each other. That is why we need our state institutions to have a strong process in place. We also need our city and county to do more to educate workers and employers about their rights."
"I tried to file my wage theft complaint in Gallup at the Workforce Connections office because my boss owed me about $64,000 in wages, but was wrongfully turned away because I did not provide a social security number," said Sandra Olivas, a member of Somos Gallup. "That is why I am proud that my husband joined the lawsuit. Now DWS will train its staff at these centers to give out correct information and allow workers access to computers and other critical resources. These centers can make all the difference for wage theft victims in rural communities."
"The only way our anti-wage theft laws will have impact is if the state agencies that are charged to enforce them do so," said Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, staff attorney at Somos and a member of the legal team headed up by the New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty in the lawsuit. "When the Legislature passes a law that gives workers a fair shot at recuperating their stolen wages, we expect state agencies like DWS to do their job."
The plaintiffs and DWS filed a joint motion this week in the First Judicial District Court asking State District Judge David K. Thomson to approve the class action settlement agreement. Under the agreement, many workers whose cases the DWS Labor Relations Division (LRD) rejected for improper reasons in the past will have the right to a re-investigation of their cases, including the Olivas.
LRD has also taken the following steps to end the practices challenged in the lawsuit:
LRD will now investigate all wage claims, regardless of their dollar value;
LRD will take enforcement action on wage claims going back three years, or longer if the violation is part of a continuing course of conduct;
Employers who fail to pay minimum or overtime wages must pay damages to wage claimants, calculated at three times the value of the unpaid wages, when a case reaches the administrative enforcement phase and is not resolved in settlement;
LRD will no longer close wage claims for impermissible procedural reasons; and
LRD will provide language access services to all wage claimants who need it, by requesting each claimant's language preference on the claim form, providing interpretation in each telephonic and in-person interaction, translating all form letters and claim forms into Spanish, allowing claimants to fill out claim forms in any language, and offering an interpreter to anyone who telephones the agency.
Earlier this year, the McKinley Worker Justice Coalition, a group comprised of Somos Gallup, the McKinley Collaborative for Health Equity and the McKinley Community Health Alliance released a report on the impact of wage theft and other employment violations on the economic security and health of Native American and Latino immigrant workers in Gallup. Among some key findings, the report highlighted the pervasive nature of wage theft and other employment violations in McKinley County. 70% of the 50 workers surveyed reported experiencing some form of pay related employment violation.
Somos Un Pueblo Unido is a statewide civil and worker's rights organization. In 2012,
Somos founded New Mexico's only worker center, the United Worker Center of New Mexico, to organize and provide support to non-union, low-wage workers.