NEW YORK – Council Member Rory I. Lancman, Chair of the Committee on Courts & Legal Services, and representatives from legal services providers and labor unions held a press conference today to call for increased city funding to support low-wage workers facing wage-theft, discrimination and other workplace violations. The press conference took place prior to a Committee on Courts & Legal Services hearing to examine the issue.

Employment law and workplace rights violations are a serious problem affecting low-wage workers. These violations come in different forms, including failure to pay overtime or minimum wage, forcing employees to work off the clock, illegal pay deductions, and retaliation for making a complaint or joining a union. Some industries are plagued by ‘misclassification,’ where employers label workers as ‘contractors’ instead of ‘employees’ in order to deny workers the rights and benefits they are legally entitled to.

Denying workers the salary or benefits they have earned makes it much more difficult for families to afford basic necessities and exacerbates the income inequality problem that already plagues our city. A 2010 study by the National Employment Law Project estimated that more than 317,000 workers in New York City suffer at least one pay-based labor or employment law violation per week. That translates into an annual loss of more than $1 billion for low-wage New Yorkers.

“In our efforts to combat income inequality and ensure the most basic legal protections for all our residents, workers’ rights are the next frontier,” said Council Member Rory I. Lancman. “Too many low-wage workers in New York City are not compensated fairly for the hours they have worked and their families struggle to make ends meet as a result. Increased enforcement will benefit our community’s most vulnerable — those living paycheck to paycheck who can’t afford to make waves or challenge the boss – as well as boost our city’s economy and prevent principled businesses from being put at a competitive disadvantage for following the law.”

Today’s press conference and Courts & Legal Services Committee hearing come as legal services funding for low-wage workers in New York City has lagged behind other priorities. Last fiscal year, New York City allocated more than $110 million dollars towards civil legal services, but only a small percentage of funded cases were employment related. Government-funded civil legal services are especially important, since low-wage workers can rarely afford to pay private attorneys upfront and the monetary takeaway from a case is oftentimes less than the actual cost to bring the case forward.

“At this critical moment when immigrant communities are increasingly preyed upon by employers taking advantage of heightened vulnerability, the demand for legal representation far outweighs the services available. Make the Road New York urges the New York City Council to significantly expand support for legal services for low-wage workers,” said Elizabeth Joynes Jordan, Supervising Attorney, Make the Road New York.

“NYLAG applauds the City Council for recognizing the unique vulnerability of low-wage workers, who are often taken advantage of and discriminated against by their employers,” said Beth Goldman, President & Attorney-in-Charge of the New York Legal Assistance Group.  “We urge the City Council and the Administration to increase funding in next year’s budget to expand critical legal services for low-income working New Yorkers.”

“It is imperative the City devote additional resources to combat wage theft and the rampant misclassification of workers. The City must not be complicit in the exploitation of a vulnerable workforce,” said David Caraballoso, President of Concrete Carpenters Local 212.

“I commend Council Member Lancman for advocating for additional funding to provide free, legal services to low-wage workers to help with workers’ rights cases. I also urge the Council to consider funding additional initiatives that would address the barriers workers face,” said Ernesto Salazar, member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

“As the Laborers union, we have successfully fought for and won over $21 million in stolen wages for non-union construction workers but we need more help in this fight. A worker is being taken advantage of every day in New York City and to take on this systemic problem, real resources must be put forward,” said Lavon Chambers, Assistant Director of the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust (GNY LECET).