News & Politics

AG Eric Schneiderman Will “Never Ask Your Immigration Status” In Employment Beefs

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If you’re an illegal immigrant working in New York, you’ve got a friend in a pretty high place: the New York Attorney General’s Office.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman penned an op-ed yesterday, in which he vows to “never ask your immigration status, or share immigration information with federal authorities” if you find yourself the victim of unfair labor practices — specifically if you’re getting taken advantage of by your employer because of your less-than-legal immigration status.

That’s right, the state’s top prosecutor is willing to turn a blind eye to federal immigration laws in order to go after predatory employers, whom, in most cases, are U.S. citizens.

We have a feeling Schneiderman won’t be making too many friends in Arizona, where the state government has decided to take it upon itself to handle its illegal immigration problem — the feds be damned.

Schneiderman offers the following scenarios — which he says have occurred in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx — to justify his position on labor disputes between illegal immigrants and employers:

Imagine being hired as a cook, but not being paid for three months.
Or being underpaid by tens of thousands of dollars as a garment worker,
and then being pressured by your boss to lie at a hearing to cover up
for him having underpaid you. Or, finally recovering wages that were
owed to you after being paid less than minimum wage, only to be fired by
your boss in retaliation for exercising your rights.

According
to the AG, these sorts of things happen frequently in New York, but
often go unreported because victims are afraid to go to authorities
because of their immigration status.

Believe it or not, Arizona
actually has its own law for punishing employers (on paper, anyway).
However, in the Grand Canyon State, the law is designed to punish them
for giving an illegal immigrant a job, not for exploiting their
immigration status to save a few bucks (although, there are still basic
employment laws on the books that protect all workers from abuse — like in New York, though, illegal immigrants are often too afraid to report their crooked employers).

Arizona
has what’s called an “Employer Sanctions Law,” which punishes employers
for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. It’s what America’s
self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio, uses as an excuse to go
hunting for illegal immigrants at Phoenix businesses — he calls the
immigrant roundups “employer sanctions operations,” even though the only
people who get in any sort of trouble are usually employees. In fact,
since the law was passed in 2007, there have only been two cases where employers have been punished at all
— a Subway restaurant that was forced to close its doors for two days
after it was discovered the owner was knowingly hiring illegal
immigrants. The other is a water park, which avoided a 10-day suspension
for violating the law by going out of
business. Its parent company, Golfland Entertainment Centers, didn’t
lose any privileges.  

In contrast, the “Employer Sanctions” law has led to the arrest and deportation of thousands of illegal immigrants (employees).

Read Schneiderman’s entire op-ed below.

Imagine being hired as a cook, but not being paid for three months. 
Or being underpaid by tens of thousands of dollars as a garment worker,
and then being pressured by your boss to lie at a hearing to cover up
for him having underpaid you.  Or, finally recovering wages that were
owed to you after being paid less than minimum wage, only to be fired by
your boss in retaliation for exercising your rights. 

Each of these stories describes the real experiences of workers in
Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx who had their labor rights violated.  In
these cases, my office investigated and the offenders were arrested
(one has pled guilty).  But too often labor violations like these–wage
theft, witness tampering, retaliation–go unreported.

Workers who are underpaid, or not paid at all, may not know their
rights, or they may not know where to go to report violations. Most of
all, many abused workers are afraid to contact authorities, especially
if they or their family members are undocumented immigrants.  Many
unscrupulous employers rely on precisely this fear to keep their
misconduct secret and avoid accountability. 

If you are reading this and are not being paid what you are legally
owed for your work, I want you to know that the Attorney General’s labor
bureau enforces labor laws for all workers regardless of
immigration status.  Please come forward and report what is happening. 
We will never ask your immigration status, or share immigration
information with federal authorities.

New York State’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour (under very specific
conditions, there is a slightly lower rate for workers who receive
tips).  If you work more than 40 hours in a week (or 44 hours for
live-in workers), you must be paid one and a half times your usual rate
for overtime.  Your employer cannot require you to work “off the clock,”
and owners and managers may not take a cut of tips.  These practices
are illegal, and they are treated as seriously by my office as any other
kind of crime. 

Most importantly, you have the right to report violations of the
labor law to the government, and it is illegal for employers to
retaliate against workers who complain about violations.  Violators are
required to pay back wages, come into compliance with the law, and are
subject to significant penalties.

The guiding philosophy of my office, for labor rights cases and all
the cases that come before us, is that there must be equal justice under
the law, and one set of rules for everyone.  If unscrupulous employers
are allowed to treat immigrant workers as a special class that is
beneath the protection of the law, it puts honest employers at an unfair
disadvantage, and lowers workplace standards for all workers–immigrant
and native born. 

These are difficult economic times, for workers and for many small
businesses.  That’s all the more reason to defend the law, and not allow
an economic race to the bottom that drives workers into poverty, and
drives honest employers out of business.  If you or someone you know is a
victim of labor rights violations, please contact my office at
212-416-8700.